Feature films about pushback against racism in America tend, broadly, to fall into two categories: nobly toned, hagiographic awards bait (Selma, Lincoln, Glory) and action fare that emphasizes graphic depictions of brutality (Birth of a Nation, Django Unchained). A few, like 12 Years a Slave, straddle the line. Essential as they are to Americans’ ability to educate ourselves via pop culture about unsavory elements of our nation’s past (and present), all such efforts are burdened with the weight of being “movies with a message.” They tend to preach to the choir; one comes out of a viewing sadly reflecting that the audiences most in need of such a message are those least likely to attend, unless the gore factor or star casting draw them in.
In Jeff Nichols’ Loving – the “Centerpiece Film” at October’s Woodstock Film Festival, and currently screening at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) is depicted as a naïve, taciturn, inarticulate construction worker from a small town in rural Virginia who loves to rebuild and race junker cars and drink beer with his buddies. Had he not grown up in an unusually integrated community, where most folks both black and white have Native American blood and all share a lifestyle barely above the poverty level, he probably would have turned out a racist good ol’ boy. But the majority of his friends and neighbors are black; his mother, the local midwife (Sharon Blackwood), has delivered most of them. And without fuss or much reflection on the state of the nation, he falls deeply, irrevocably in love with a part-black, part-Native woman: Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga). Mildred gets pregnant, and Richard wants to do right by her, oblivious to the anxieties of those around him who are more experienced with the realities of mid-century racism.
So they elope to Washington, DC, where interracial marriage is legal, and then return to their hometown, where Richard has bought an acre of land amidst the tobacco fields, just down the road from the Jeter home, where he plans to build his new wife and imminent child a house. Meanwhile, he proudly frames and nails their wedding certificate to the wall of Mildred’s bedroom. It’s the summer of 1958. Within a month, the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) raids their sanctum in the middle of the night and hauls them off to jail. Richard is quickly bailed out, but when the court refuses to allow him to do the same for Mildred, he is shocked and baffled by the injustice and consumed with worry for his adored wife.
A plea bargain requires the young couple to move out of the state of Virginia at once or be forced to serve one-year prison sentences. They find refuge with an aunt (Andrene Ward-Hammond) in a black neighborhood in Washington, DC. Years pass and the Lovings have three children, but Mildred desperately misses her family, especially her sister (Terri Abney), and hates having to keep her spirited brood caged up in an urban apartment. Watching the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement on her aunt’s TV, Mildred determines to write to Robert Kennedy asking for help in getting their sentences overturned. The attorney general passes her letter along to the American Civil Liberties Union, two of whose lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) deem the time ripe to seek a showdown before the Supreme Court.
But Loving is not your typical soul-stirring, flag-waving courtroom drama. As a film about race relations, it’s almost in a class by itself. The recurring symbol of justice here is not a blindfolded goddess in Grecian garments bearing scales, but a simple, hardworking man hefting his four-foot spirit level to lay out sturdy concrete block foundations. Fiercely protective of his family, Richard has no use for legal sophistry. He refuses even to attend the discussions of their case, knowing that it would pain Mildred to hear the State of Virginia’s attorneys argue that their children are bastards. We see very little of “historic moments” here. The movie’s focus is very deliberately on a marriage, the deep affection and commitment that two rather ordinary human beings have for one another. And the heroism that we witness onscreen is low-key, mostly nonverbal: a master class in physical acting.
While not star-studded, the entire acting ensemble of Loving is exquisitely cast and directed, and Negga and Edgerton are both utterly superb in their roles. The cinematography is beautiful, the Tidewater locations authentic, the crossover black/white music of the era superbly chosen, the art direction pitch-perfect. If you grew up in America in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the costumes, the set-dressing, the props from the tiniest salt-shaker to the boatlike automobiles will all recall details of your own youth with heartbreaking precision. Small changes in style and technology, like Richard acquiring an early-model power lawnmower, convey the passage of time more subtly than the parade of topical news broadcasts standard to this genre.
The film’s stately pacing is deeply evocative of the mid-century South, its oppressive heat and dryness, the endless rituals of housekeeping, the courtly dance of social hierarchies even among the rural poor. We don’t get our noses rubbed in the oppressiveness of Jim Crow laws with scenes of bloody beatings; it’s there in the creases of Edgerton’s brow as Richard scans the horizons of his home turf for the cloud of dust heralding the arrival of a police car at any moment. It’s there in Negga’s soulful eyes as she pines for her sundered family. Even a good ol’ boy could feel for these people. The trick, of course, is to lure him into the cinema.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.