On November 4, the new feature film Loving debuted in the United States. The film’s stunning aesthetics, stellar acting, and timely content made it a contender for the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and many believe it will compete for an Oscar. Over the last three weeks, the movie has been gaining speed at the box office, grossing over $4 million. This spike in viewership after the election makes sense. Many are finding the film to be a valuable addition to their post-election anti-stress strategies.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols and inspired by The Loving Story, a 2012 HBO documentary, Loving is based on the true story of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), a “colored” woman who self-identified as Black, “Indian” (likely Cherokee), and white. Their decision to get married turned into a landmark civil rights case. When they tried to tie the knot in 1958, 16 Southern states had laws banning marriage between people they classified as “white” and “colored,” including Virginia, where they lived. The Lovings’ case for equality went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967 when a unanimous vote declared that “marriage is…a fundamental freedom.” The ruling struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the country, making interracial marriage legal in all 50 states, and sealed the couple’s last name with their destiny forever.
The film opens with Mildred and her then-boyfriend Richard sitting on a humble porch in rural Virginia. They hold hands and nuzzle against each other. She tells him she’s pregnant. The camera pans to his face. He’s still, contemplative. Then he chuckles and looks at her. “That’s good,” he says. She smiles and rests her head on his shoulder. This physical closeness and ease they have with each other is the essence of their relationship—and the film—as is the simplicity and lack of dialogue. Nichols is much more interested in showing their connection than explaining it. He wanted to honor the real-life couple, who were simple folk, and Richard, in particular, was a man of few words. The script could use a bit more dialogue in order to allow the audience to know the characters better. Still, the emotional bond is communicated well.
This movie does a great job exposing the brutal effects of institutional racism. Five weeks after the couple drives to Washington, D.C. to get married (since it’s illegal to do so in Virginia), the local police raid their home in the middle of the night. They’re charged with a felony and sentenced to one year in jail, but they have the option to evade jail time by living outside of Virginia for 25 years. They choose the latter. Mildred had always lived with her family, and Richard lived across the dirt road with his. Once they got married, he moved in with her family, and they had plans to build a house a half-mile away. They had a rich network of extended family, and then they are literally forced by the state—its laws, police, and courts—into a nuclear family model. They’re mandated to leave their community in shame. Nichols shows this well. While in Virginia, the camera often pans to show lush nature: open fields, flowers, the sky. In their apartment in D.C., the shots are almost always inside and cramped, making the audience feel as caged as the couple.
Loving also shows the interconnectedness between political movements and ordinary people like the protagonists. The two were not activists and did not want to be heroes. They just wanted to love whomever they wanted. While living far from their families in D.C., Mildred becomes depressed. One day, she’s watching a civil rights march on TV, and her friend suggests she write Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, so she does. He forwards her letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, who ends up defending the couple. Without the civil rights movement, their case never would have been heard by the Supreme Court. This is a crucial fact that is not overlooked.
An unexpected bonus is a rarely seen and much-needed representation of white masculinity. Richard follows Mildred’s lead: He lets her call the shots even when he’s uncomfortable with it. And he never shows rage in spite of feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness. One night, after the Lovings have returned to Virginia and are living with a constant threat of violence from the police and whites, Richard goes out with some Black male friends to a bar. One of them tells Richard that he’s finally found out what it’s like to be Black, but unlike them, Richard could just divorce her, walk away, and never have to look back—or face prejudice again. It’s unclear how Richard will react, but one might expect him to punch a wall or throw a bottle. Instead, he goes home and weeps in Mildred’s arms. “I can take care of you,” he cries, even if it’s clear that up against institutional racism, his abilities to do so are compromised. A white male actually feeling and showing his despair instead of acting it out against others is a representation—and a reality—we need more of.
Just a few months ago, we may have read this film as a historical narrative about race given the rise of white anxiety—and fears about the right to same-sex marriage being threatened under Donald Trump’s presidency. We must view it as a mirror of our present—and a warning of the future for all of us.