Movie Review: Loving (2016)
“All love is created equal.”
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton
Synopsis: In 1960s America, an interracial married couple challenge the law that sees them as criminals.
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The 1967 case of Loving vs Virginia is a landmark case dating back to the most turbulent years of the fight for racial equality in the United States which resulted in the US Supreme Court ruling that Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was unconstitutional. The Lovings were a mixed-race couple who, for their crime of inter-racial marriage, were given the choice of a one year prison sentence or a 25-year ban from the State of Virginia. With no choice but to leave the state if they wished to retain their freedom, the Lovings moved to Washington, from where they eventually launched a legal battle with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, setting in motion an action that would contribute significantly to the development of racial equality in the United States.
While Jeff Nichols’ restrained treatment of the Lovings’ ordeal is no doubt appealing to Academy members and highbrow critics, and leaves one in no doubt of his sincerity, the truth of the matter is that their story is not a cinematic one, and is therefore much better served by Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story. Nichols’ worthy version of events appears to stick fairly close to the facts, although it does little to emphasise the unusual level of inter-racial social interaction in the region in which Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter grew up compared to the rest of the South, leaving the audience to wonder why their relationship creates so few tensions between the couple and their families and neighbours. For the most part, it is only figures of authority and representatives of the state who exhibit overtly racist attitudes, which, due to the film’s failure to adequately explain the unique social structure in Caroline County at the time, gives the unfortunate impression that Nichols is delivering a skewed version of events.
He keeps the story low-key and understated, and refuses to over-dramatise. Richard Loving was apparently a man of few words, but, as played by Joel Edgerton (Jane Got a Gun, Midnight Special), he comes across like a beaten dog passively swept along in the wake of the unilateral decisions made by his soft-spoken but forceful wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga – World War Z, Warcraft). He accepts each new development that takes them deeper into unknown territory and closer to the media spotlight without question or comment, and the film shies away from exploring in any real depth the pressures that the campaign for justice must have placed on their marriage. Negga’s Mildred is a far more persuasive character, displaying an inner resolve by the movie’s end that is nowhere to be found at it’s beginning.
Hollywood is renowned for romanticising historical fact and moulding it into, at best, a broad audience-friendly approximation of the truth. And while it’s refreshing to find a movie that appears to remain comparatively faithful to the truth, it’s also ironic to have to criticise it for failing to hold our interest in the way that one would expect.
(Reviewed 30th January 2017)