Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Will Dalton, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Chris R. Greene, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Winter-Lee Holland, Marton Csokas, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Nick Kroll, D.L. Hopkins, Jon Bass, Matt Malloy
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements
Running Time: 123
Date: 11/11/2016

Loving (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Loving' Supreme


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This year, the awards-season trend seems to be movies that follow the Oscar-bait formula on the surface, but then do something entirely different, entirely unexpected. Jeff Nichols's Loving -- his second movie this year after the equally excellent Midnight Special -- tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the real-life interracial Virginia couple that illegally married in 1958, went through years of hardship and struggle, and then helped bring about a landmark court decision.

You can almost picture the movie now: years zipping by, courtroom battles, scenes of evil rednecks trying to defend the racist laws, characters either weeping or joyous, etc. Thankfully, Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud) goes an entirely different direction. In fact, I will tell you right now that the moment of victory is shown in a simple phone call: Mildred (relative newcomer Ruth Negga, excellent) answers, hears the news, and quietly thanks the person on the other end of the phone. That's it. No, Nichols's focus is not on the moral/legal battle over race and freedom, but on the day-to-day struggle of the Lovings, trying to work, live, and raise their family.

At first, the Lovings are arrested and only Mildred is thrown in jail, which causes unspoken agony for Richard. Then, they are asked to either leave the state or face more jail time. They do leave for a while, but Mildred is pregnant and requests to travel back home where Richard's mother, a midwife, can deliver their baby. It's there that trouble arises. Eventually Mildred decides to write a letter to Bobby Kennedy, who sends an ACLU lawyer to look into the case. The lawyers do most of their work offscreen, while the Lovings wait. Occasionally reporters and photographers come to the house, including a Life magazine photographer (Michael Shannon, in his fifth film for Nichols), who takes an iconic picture of the couple laughing, a moment of release.

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, unrecognizable in makeup, and transforming his Australian accent into a Virginian one), is a proud man, a man of few words, a bricklayer who works in rhythmic strokes. He's the kind of man whose entire existence is justified by his ability to take care of his family, and with this taken away from him, he tries his best to do what he can to do his job, without ever complaining. He doesn't like all the attention, but he loves his wife, and the couple rarely takes out their stresses on each other. They struggle valiantly.

Perhaps even more interesting than the battle for equality is the equality that already exists in this little pocket of Central Point, Virginia. There, blacks and whites have been raised together, and they show a total comfort among one another. They may be aware of skin color, but it doesn't change or affect anything in their day to day lives. That's how Richard and Mildred were able to fall in love, just a couple of crazy kids from the same place who grew up knowing the same things. (We even learn, in passing, that Richard's father worked for a black man.)

Nichols's approach is slow and quiet, observing the tiniest details of life, including the barely perceptible affections that Richard occasionally bestows upon his children. Many scenes are unspoken, or spoken very hesitatingly, with great thought put into the formation of words. Only one scene is dedicated to a lawman trying to defend the racist law, and even his speech is quiet and brief, and comes fairly early in the film. The filmmaker avoids trying to make viewers feel guilty or superior because of these laws and events; he's more interested in really getting to know these remarkable people who were, in many ways, not remarkable at all.

Nate Parker's recent The Birth of a Nation was supposed to have been the this year's miracle cure for the heavy focus on white actors in white films, but its trajectory has fallen, and, in truth, it was a simplistic film that worked largely on a surface level. Loving is the real deal. It's not a sermon. It's just a snapshot that proves we are all more than our skin colors. We are people, and we are capable of great love.

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