Even before I’d seen Loving (available via amazon or iTunes), I expected it to get a Best Picture nomination because it was a well-reviewed film that covered a major social issue with renewed relevance in light of November’s elections. The BBC even tweeted an errant image of the BP nominees that included Loving with the nine films that actually did get that honor. Now that I’ve seen it and can actually offer an opinion, I’m surprised it didn’t get one, especially with Hell or High Water, an entertaining but rather formulaic movie, earning a nod instead.
Loving tells the true and still somewhat hard-to-believe story of the perfectly-named Lovings, a white man and black woman in Virginia in the 1950s who got married in Washington, D.C., because Virginia had a law explicitly prohibiting interracial marriage. The couple was arrested and pled guilty under an arrangement where they agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years, but after some time in D.C., Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred her to the local ACLU chapter, which in turn saw the Lovings as a perfect test case to try to blow up anti-miscegenation laws across the south and midwest. Sixteen states still had such laws in 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings that Virginia’s law violated the Fourteenth Amendment; of those states, fourteen went for Trump in November 2016, the only exceptions being Virginia itself … and Delaware.
Director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) also wrote the screenplay for Loving and by all accounts, including comments from the Lovings’ daughter Peggy, hewed very closely to the truth, to an extent that might have actually hurt the film’s commercial appeal. This is a simple love story, not a courtroom drama or a rabble-rousing protest film. Richard Loving in particular was a very quiet man, uncomfortable with the public attention or the need to take any of this to higher courts; he just loved his wife and wanted the legal right to be with her. Mildred appears to have been the impetus behind the lawsuits and the charge up to the Supreme Court, conscious of the larger issues at play here than just their relationship (and the status of their children, who were considered illegitimate before SCOTUS struck down the Virginia law). It’s kind of a sweet story, with minimal drama and certainly no artificial flourishes to heighten the tension. I appreciated that aspect of the film because it’s such an antidote to hyped-up “based on a true story” movies that merge people into single characters or alter the order of events to make the film more exciting, but I can also understand viewers finding it dull because we just don’t see movies like this very often.
Ruth Negga earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Mildred, although I couldn’t see her winning over Emma Stone for La La Land on merit or popularity. Neither Mildred nor Richard is that intruiging a character, with Mildred the slightly deeper of the two, although much of Negga’s performance, while solid, involves showing varying degrees of anxiety or concern on her face. Loving doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, and neither character changes at all over the course of the film – because that’s the story, of course. The couple were already adults when they first chose to get married, and they stuck together through their challenges because they loved each other, but neither needed to acquire anything new to get to the conclusion. You might argue that Mildred showed unexpected strength in taking the lead during the legal process, but I interpreted it as showing that she already had this strength of character but was somewhat overshadowed because she was both a woman and a person of color, so less was expected of her.
Loving is, however, a classically romantic movie. These two people just love each other so much they were willing to break the law, resist arrest and imprisonment, and eventually concede much of their privacy to be together legally and to allow others to do the same. Nichols stays out of the way of the story in almost every aspect; I think the best way to know this is one of his films is the cast, with Michael Shannon making his required appearance (as a Life photographer) and both Bill Camp and Joel Edgerton (as Richard Loving) appearing as they did in Nichols’ Midnight Special. Perhaps it wasn’t quite flashy enough to attract Oscar voters, but I think it’s a beautiful rendition of a true story of great historical importance within our country and, of course, remains relevant to this day.