Friday, May 12, 2017

Loving Criticism

The 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia is one of the more prominent cases in U.S. law. The unanimous verdict struck down anti-miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage, marking another advance for civil rights. (The ruling also figured prominently in the case that struck down same-sex marriage bans decades later.)

The case had previously been chronicled in a documentary, The Loving Story. As much as I appreciated the history, I was lukewarm at best on the film. That left me hopeful for improvement in a new, dramatized take on the tale released last year, a movie simply titled Loving. Unfortunately, I felt like it missed the mark even more than the documentary.

This new movie came from writer-director Jeff Nichols. I found that unexpected and improbable, given the only other movie of his I've seen, the sci-fi tinged family drama Midnight Special. It seemed like quite a change-up. Still, I quite liked that movie, and the way the personal stakes of its story remained front and center throughout. Maybe Nichols was the right person to tell the Loving story.

Richard and Mildred Loving were not a particularly outgoing couple. The fact that they were living together in violation of the law no doubt magnified their already quiet personalities. So if told accurately, this was never going to be a movie in which they gave bombastic, Oscar-baiting speeches. Still, it's so understated that it often feels like nothing is happening.

Interestingly, the movie is so matter of fact about their relationship that it doesn't even get into their legal troubles until 15-20 minutes in. I found myself thinking that someone coming into this film without knowing the story, someone without racial prejudice, might well wonder what the hell it's all about. When the movie does get there, it does enter its strongest section: an impactful display of what it's like to deal with bigotry -- both casual and overt -- on a regular basis.

But when things finally do turn to the court case, I found myself wanting more. Historical fact, combined with the writer's choice of perspective, combined to deny that. The Lovings did not even attend the hearing at the Supreme Court, and the movie makes the decision to remain grounded completely in their perspective. While I appreciate the impulse to keep it their story, it means we never get the triumphant moment where their argument is aired forcefully in public. There's no "yeah, take that haters!" moment in this film, even when the case is won. The Lovings just keep on living their lives.

It's something of a wonder that Ruth Negga received an Oscar nomination here for her performance as Mildred Loving -- not because it's bad work, but because it's so muted and restrained, so not the sort of work that normally garners Oscar attention, that I'm not sure how it broke through. Joel Edgerton has the volume dialed down even more as Richard Loving, giving the most subtle and understated performance of the film and his career.

The actors with the most to do in terms of flash also have very little to do in terms of their actual time in the movie. Nick Kroll, normally known for comedy, plays an ACLU lawyer. Marton Csokas gives us our villain to sneer at as a racist local sheriff. Michael Shannon plays a photographer for LIFE magazine. The three appear collectively in perhaps a quarter of the movie.

So once again, I find myself praising the actual story of the Lovings, hoping that more people knew of it... only to have another movie I can't really recommend to anyone. Loving is just too dry, too soft-spoken, to trumpet their courage in the way it deserves. I give it a D+. Stick with the documentary, or perhaps better still, the actual Supreme Court ruling that bears the Lovings' name.

No comments: