Loving (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Loving (2016)

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Mildred and Richard want to live out their lives with each other in peace and quiet.  She gets pregnant, he beams with joy, and it seems their modest goal is close at-hand.  But this was 1958, well before the Civil Rights Movement hit its full stride, and when their love was illegal.  Jeff Nichols wrote the screenplay for and directs Loving, and stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.

When we talk about the optics surrounding American law it’s more common to see pieces on who the President surround themselves with and less the people who make up court cases.  Truth is, optics matter just as much for cases that reach the Supreme Court.  The right combination of sympathetic litigant and passable jurisprudence can be enough to sway the Justices.  This is partly why cases filed by anti-choice parties will coalesce around a polite nun and not the foaming maniacs who picket women’s health centers.

Jeff NicholsLoving understands the optics of a good litigant in one of its best scenes that leads to one of its worst storytelling aspects.  The good is in how attorney Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) rushes to assume control of another attorney’s office and rapidly remove all the photos that might tip-off the Lovings that Bernie isn’t as strong a lawyer as he appears.  Bernie’s rush to erase someone else’s life from view is amusing enough, but his energy in creating the illusion of a perfect lawyer also fuels a lusty excitement for taking the case of the Lovings (on name alone Loving v. Anything is a case with optics civil liberties lawyers would kill for).  This excitement is an initial breath of fresh energy, but soon turns into one of my least favorite aspects of historical biopics – the self-righteousness from those lucky enough to win.

Maybe other audience members will find reason to applaud the lawyers as presented in Loving. For me, their involvement was an unnecessarily complicated detour from the simplicity of Mildred and Richard Loving.

This air of self-righteousness moves Loving from a keenly observed low-key biopic to a disjointed mess of disconnected scenes and dramatic flare-ups. The Loving children, babies in one shot, are toddlers to preteens the next, and all the daily labor and tension the Lovings experience that unfolded slowly starts to take place off-screen.  What starts as a story about how racism’s effects are felt both large and small becomes a vessel of background information for the Lovings’ lawyers to have their moment.  By the time Bernie’s partner, Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) dramatically states how this case may change the Constitution, I began to wonder if Nichols was having an off-day with his camera and pen as those scenes rolled forward to film.

If we consider the PoV of those moments, sure, the dramatic self-importance makes a bit of sense since we’re looking at the case from the lawyer’s perspectives.  But it’s an odd decision to have these moments in a movie about structural racism and not see or hear how their self-important image affects the lives of the Lovings.  It gets weirder when we recall how the first half of Loving has three excellent scenes with their at-the-time lawyer, Frank Beazley (Bill Camp) as a socially libertarian “live and let live” type who is only willing to go so far for the Lovings.

The transition is so awkward precisely because the first half is so effective.  Loving’s open is a spectacular way to answer a long-standing question I’ve had about the way historical figures have been presented.  Do they ever have sex?  That may read as a silly question, but historical biopics are so often sexless that I wonder what it is that attracted one partner to another in the first place.  Nichols separates Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) in separate frames while looking in different directions, and it’s Mildred’s cautious admission she’s pregnant that opens up the happiness floodgates in Richard.

What follows are several scenes of flowering courtship is a low-key view of the American south Nichols had not yet tapped into.  Intimate scenes of Richard lightly touching Mildred’s backside at a store have a healthy sexual charge.  Tactile pleasures of the south, like the kicked-up dirt of a raucous outdoor party or that first smell of sweet southern air after being cooped up indoors, sit alongside insert shots of the sharp stares from their white neighbors.  The racism isn’t overt, which makes it all the more threatening when the little hatreds coalesce in a nightmare encounter with a sheriff (Marton Csokas) whose racism is as natural to the law as it is devastating to the newly christened Loving family.

The first half of Loving is effective, cutting down Mildred and Richard's confidence every time they make headway toward their dream.

On reflection, the issues with Loving’s lawyerly obliviousness in the second half have their roots in Nichols’ decision to ignore class in the first.  A lazy response to those who want to change things is to, “Move to another state,” or out of the country.  The Loving family does just this, with unusual simplicity, and, despite financial difficulties which plagued the real Loving family, this cinematic version is helmed by a patriarch who writes checks without issue.  Downplaying the financial and class-based strain is a mistake, unhelpfully subduing some of racism’s effects by reducing the Lovings' reasons for wanting to return to Virginia as based on sense discomfort than structural oppression.

All this positions Loving as an odd form of nostalgia.  The simplicity of the erotically charged early scenes mark a perspective longing to return to the good ol’ days.  But the later moments of financial ease do a disservice to the Loving family’s economic need to return home on top of their sense-based concerns.  Nichols substitutes complexity for depth as Loving rolls on, and we recall just how perfect the optics for the Loving family’s story was to start.

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Loving (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.

Posted by Andrew

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