“Tell the Court I love my wife”
Biopics are always a tricky deal: you want to make something that’s compelling drama but not distort the facts so much that you lose your audience or get angry messages from people who experienced whatever your depicting. We had Hacksaw Ridge (review coming this week) cover the life of an American conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor during World War II through the filter of Mel “Psychotic Martyr Complex” Gibson, and this week we have Loving, covering the marriage of the Mildred and Richard Loving that lead to the U.S. Supreme Court finding bans on interracial marriage to be unconstitutional through the lens of indie arthouse theater maestro, Jeff Nichols. You might remember Jeff from such hits as Mud, Take Shelter, and September’s Midnight Special. So are we in for some standard biopic fare or are we in for a little artsy bullshit thrown in for a historical tale? Don’t skip to the end for my rating, read on people!
So for those not 100% on American history, several portions of the United States had banned marriages or even sexual relationships between races since the colonial period. The reason for them can only be described as “racist as fuck” but unfortunately there was plenty of legal deliberation that made these laws enforceable in several portions of the country. In one such part of the country, the State of Virginia, you had Richard Loving (a white man played by Joel Edgerton in the film) and Mildred Delores (a Black woman played by Ruth Nega in our production) who decided to get married after Mildred found herself pregger with Richard’s child. Even though it was illegal to marry across races in Virginia, it was perfectly fine in Washington, DC, so the couple drove up there to get hitched.
Unfortunately for them, they got arrested upon returning to Virignia and were therafter exiled from their own home in exchange for not going to prison. Reasonably pissed off that the couple could not visit their families in Virginia and had to live in DC, the couple requested help from Attorney General Robert Kennedy who referred them to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and got them an attorney (played here by Nick Kroll trying like hell not to reprise his asshole lawyer routine from The League). Their efforts ultimately lead to a legal fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court that ultimately overturned the Lovings’ conviction and effectively made interracial marriage legal in America in 1967.
Before you cry “SPOILER” (also, read a history book motherfucker), the focus on the movie is NOT on the legendary Supreme Court case. Instead, the focus is all on Richard and Mildred Loving and this may make or break the film for you. Their love wasn’t some harlequin romance or some torrid affair, but a genuine kind of connection between two people who just want to be married. They were essentially very simple people who didn’t want much out of life but the ability to be together. That’s it. And the film very meticulously shows their home life beginning with Mildred’s reveal that she’s pregnant all the way to hearing the news that they can legally return to Virginia (even though they were secretly hanging out there all along) without fear of prison time. It’s a nice change of pace from seeing conflict all the time for something that’s far more reflective than it is dramatic.
Now this might lose some people. Hell, it normally does for me with fare like Tree of Life that’s more about the journey than the destination. But whereas Tree of Life seems to be drawing some existential conclusion about a man’s place in the universe, Loving aims for something much more simpler: humanizing a couple that wanted to be left the fuck alone.
This spirit is communicated very effectively through Nega’s and Edgerton’s performances. As far on screen chemistry goes, their pairing speaks volumes to those who are in committed relationships, be they interracial or not. It’s the subtle way they comfort each other and try to do what’s best for one another while communicating their struggles effectively like a partner normally does. Compared to so many atrocious on-screen relationships I’ve seen over the years, the pairing is truly memorable and the actors sell the relationship beautifully. To the point I’m not sure if I can easily recommend Best Actor and Actress for either of them because the film only works as well as it does through this two-person team. Separating either performance would lessen the impact of the film and of each performance.
Directing wise, this is as bold as biopic films can get so Nichols deserves some kudos for providing us with a different perspective. That being said, I am somewhat disappointed that we couldn’t get into any of the courtroom speeches that came to define the case of Loving v. Virginia, but that’s me talking as a lawyer. It’s just that the case became relevant again both through a wave of bigotry plauging the United States as well as last year’s Supreme Court decision in finding bans on same sex marriage to be unconstitutional for similiar reasons that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. And I really wanted to hear more about the case as it revealed that the State’s case against the Lovings’ relationship was the fact that children born from interracial couplings were to be considered “bastards.” It’s even more infuriating when you hear one judge’s reasoning for upholding anti-miscegenation laws was the following:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. [Citation]
That line is read to the Lovings in the film by the way, and it perfectly sums up for anyone with a working brain how utterly fucked these laws truly were. But like I said, the court deliberations feels more like a B-story rather than the main thrust of the tale, which instead focuses on the day to day life of Mildred and Richard Loving. That may seem backwards to some in Hollywood and indeed some audiences, but I surprisingly found it effective.
I’ve slagged off a few films this year for throwing out traditional story conventions in favor of relationship building, but the reason I didn’t like them was because the story that remained barely had any attachment to reality or the problems affecting a pair of characters. This film instead has the courtroom drama as a Sword of Damacles that hangs over the couple, but they deliberately try not to think about it as the health of their marriage and the wellbeing of their children is more important than anything else. THAT is relatable, it’s encouraging and it’s very hopeful, thus giving you something to anchor yourself to seeing where the Lovings go next.
Wished I could have seen more of Nick Kroll argue with judges and attorneys on what’s right in this world and why the anti-miscegenation laws were bullshit, because he’s genuinely great in the little bit of screen time he has. Hell the supporting cast does top notch work, including the Lovings’ children that can’t help but be adorable. At the same time, I still recognize what this film was trying to do (depict how life continued on for a couple who were at the center of a major historical event and how their love for each other brought them out to the other side) and the film succeeds admirably. So I’ll give this a lower…