When President Barrack Obama was elected there was a lot of great hope that we’d finally entered a “post-racial” era of American history. That was a nice thought, but clearly it was total bullshit. Here we are eight years later and not only have we failed to continue in a progressive direction but we’ve allowed a monster to become president, a blatant racist and misogynist who has made no secret of his plan to dismantle whatever progress has been made in recent years (Editor’s note: if you are a Trump supporter and are offended by any of this partisan discourse, kindly get fucked, I’m in no mood to mend bridges right now). What to make of this? Well, what it suggests to me is that these ideas of “making progress” were misguided. Racism is not something that can ever truly be defeated and erased from the minds of the American people, rather it’s something that we’re always going to need to fight and keep in check through elections, laws, and court rulings because whatever milestones we reach and victories we achieve can be wiped away if we’re not vigilant. The new film Loving is about one of the landmark victories of the past in the fight against institutional racism, a victory that in more ways than one helped pave the way for Barrack Obama’s electoral victory eight years ago but now almost seems like something that could disappear someday if we aren’t more vigilant than we have been recently.
Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a white man and black woman from Northeast Virginia who in 1958 bucked the mores and laws of their time and place by crossing into the district of Columbia to get married. The two of them lived in a semi-secluded valley where the poorest inhabitants seem to live in relative integration between the races, including Richard who gets along well with Mildred’s family and friends for the most part. The two of them don’t seem to think about their union as something done in defiance of an unjust law so much as it just seems like a natural progression in their relationship. However, wind of this marriage does eventually make its way to the county’s sheriff and suddenly the two of them have deputies storming into their house at night and arresting them under anti-miscegenation laws. With limited resources the two of them accept a deal which would allow them to avoid jail time but force them to move across state lines into D.C. and thus live an urban lifestyle that they are unequipped for. Fortunately they do eventually meet an ACLU lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who believes this could be a good test case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
This film can easily viewed as one in a long line of black history movies that have come out recently, but I suspect that the project was originally conceived in response to a different civil rights fight: the fight for same sex marriage equality, a similar fight for the right to marry for which this story could serve as a sort of allegorical argument for preventing the government from deciding who could and couldn’t legally sanction their union. Granted, Deadline Hollywood has reported that director Jeff Nichols wasn’t even hired to write the film until May of 2015, which was about a month before the landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced, so it’s fair to say that this wasn’t written to be a propaganda tool, but I’m still pretty sure there’s a reason this particular case is coming up at this particular time. One could look at this timing and say that the movie came out too late and that it isn’t as topical as it could have been had it come out a couple years earlier, but once again, recent events have led me to reconsider my previous notions of “progress” on social issues and consider that it is perhaps worth being reminded on a regular basis how important the legal protections we currently have.
As previously mentioned, Loving was directed by a filmmaker named Jeff Nichols, who is not really the first director I would have suspected to be making this kind of middlebrow civil rights history movie, but I guess it makes a certain sort of sense given that he has long been the maker of films about the South. What Nichols seems to bring to the movie is a degree of restrain and dignity that you wouldn’t get if this was given the treatment that something like 42 or Race doesn’t. The movie never succumbs to the corny indulgences that I’m sure this could have stepped into though this approach does have some shortcomings as well. The racism here seems a bit colder, more institutional than it does in a lot of these movies, which is probably realistic but it almost makes the environment that these two characters are living in seem at odds with their legal predicament. In the movie it almost seems like the only people in the state of Virginia who were viscerally offended by inter-racial marriage were police and judges, which would seem to beg the question of just who it was who was electing these openly racist police and judges.
I also feel like the movie could have stood to be a bit more… romantic. I suppose I like that the movie didn’t go the rather cheap and probably dishonest route of turning the Lovings into some crazy kids who consciously buck the odds and let love conquer all, but a little more of a spark between the two of them might have been nice. The movie begins with Mildred already pregnant with their first child and Richard proposing, so the movie completely sidesteps their initial courtship and their relationship seems so tender and almost naïve that there isn’t a whole lot of physical chemistry onscreen. What’s more their relationship later on seems almost a little too ideal to be real. There’s hardly a single argument between the two aside from a few almost passive aggressive disagreements about how to proceed with their case. I’m sure there are marriages out there which are this conflict free, but there’s a reason they tend not to make movies about those relationships, and given the pressures they were under I would imagine there would be at least one or two blow-ups between the two of them. Part of this disconnect likely had to do with the pressure the Lovings were under during their lifetimes to prove that their relationship was viable and their understandable desire not to let the world see signs of weakness, but I at least like to think that fifty some years later it might be time to show another side of the relationship even if it required a degree of creative license to achieve.
Needless to say, as well made as this is it’s still a decidedly “safe” movie that’s meant to tell a story that will tell provide a fairly digestible moral to audiences who don’t want to be challenged to hard by their tales of racial strife. The movie doesn’t really go into the reasons why the Lovings were chosen to be the test case brought to the supreme court rather than the other interracial marriages that the ACLU could have chosen. The fact that it was the woman who was black, the fact that the two of them couldn’t be construed as “radicals,” the fact that Richard looked like a “good ol’ boy,” and Mildred had very maternal ambitions were likely all factors in why they were more likely to be sympathetic to the public of 1967 and they’re also likely factors in why this was chosen as the movie to sell to middle class movie goers and Academy voters in 2016 and also why the whole movie can seem a bit less than radical to people looking for something a little more radical in their modern civil rights movies. And yet, once again, recent events have made me rethink these things a little and wonder if maybe there’s more of a need for education in “the basics” of civil rights than I might have thought a month ago. But, the fact remains that whether or not movies like this are needed a film review is ultimately supposed to be a personal reaction and my personal reaction was to find the movie mostly respectable and decently watchable but decidedly less than visionary effort and the mere fact that it could have been a lot cornier than it is doesn’t automatically make it something too special in my eyes.