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The Current Debate: The Quiet Fortitude of "Loving"

The new film from Jeff Nichols is an essential story of ordinary people.
Loving is perhaps the least likely and most necessary film to accompany the conclusion of this year’s tumultuous U.S. presidential election: a drama that’s at once calm, even tranquil, and still a vital reminder of the possibility of progressive politics. The newest from writer-director Jeff Nichols (and his second this year, after Midnight Special) tells the story leading up to another momentous event in U.S. history, the landmark civil rights decision Loving v. Virginia, in 1967. But, as Alissa Wilkinson writes at Vox, it does so in a way unlike anything else we’ve seen in this election:
It’s difficult, leading up to any election — and especially this one — to not see everything, including pop culture, through the lens of politics. But even by pre-election standards, Loving, about the couple at the center of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, would seem to be obviously political.
So the marvel of Loving is that it’s not really a triumphant legal drama; it’s more like a romance that happens to have a Supreme Court case in the mix.
Loving is Nichols’ first historical drama, but it feels very much like a continuation of his earlier, fictional films, and particularly of their sense of compassion for an especially quiet Southern way of life. The Virginia in which his Richard and Mildred Loving fall in love is similar to—if perhaps even more peaceful than—the Arkansas of Shotgun Stories and Mud. Still, like those films, Loving finds its way to drama, as Michael Sragow writes at Film Comment:
The tale contains so much built-in fascination and is told with such sincerity that it’s hard not to get caught up in the Lovings’ plight. After we’ve seen their bedroom invaded at 2 a.m. by lawmen who sneer at the D.C. marriage license posted on the wall and lock them up in separate jail cells, any flashlight or strange car streaking down a road seems a harbinger of doom. The Lovings plead guilty to violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and receive suspended sentences of a year in jail, provided they leave “Caroline County and the state of Virginia at once and do not return together or at the same time to said county and state for a period of twenty-five years.” They move into the Washington D.C. house of one of Mildred’s cousins and try to adjust to city life, as they raise three children. But Mildred longs for her rural home, and her yearning will lead to further jeopardy—and final justice.
Forced exile and final justice would seem to be the makings of a gripping story, so it may be surprising that Nichols all but backgrounds those elements, and instead makes a film as much about Mildred’s longing, and Richard’s quiet pain at his inability to salve it, as about the fight to assert their civil rights. Not everyone will find that satisfying. At The New Yorker, Richard Brody puts Nichols’ film up against an earlier film about the Lovings, a 1996 Showtime movie directed by Richard Friedenberg, and finds Nichols’ lacking in comparison:
The Lovings, arrested and tried for their marriage, were forced, in a plea bargain that allowed them to avoid imprisonment, to leave Virginia. They moved to Washington, D.C. In that setting, too, Friedenberg develops the Lovings’ story and the distinctive characters of Mildred and Richard with far more detail, substance, and drama. To begin, they have trouble finding a place to live—whites won’t rent to them, but Richard won’t disclose that fact to Mildred. They find an apartment in a row house in a seemingly all-African-American part of the city, but Richard is keenly aware that they’re living in substandard housing in a neglected neighborhood. Meanwhile, during his days at work, Mildred, staying at home, makes friends from the neighborhood, especially an insightful older woman, Sophia (Ruby Dee), and a civil-rights activist and street preacher named Blue (Isaiah Washington). Richard is deeply resentful of her friendships, and is especially suspicious of the sharply dressed, fast-talking Blue, whom he calls a pimp and tries to fight. In “Loving,” there’s no such conflict at all.
It’s true that there’s almost no fast-talking of any kind in Loving, but as Michelle Dean writes at The New Republic, that’s not for some lack of inspiration or dramatic ability. It’s the point:
The particular challenge of Loving is that the couple at its heart just wasn’t like that. They were not talkers. In the recent HBO documentary about them, The Loving Story, which was clearly a source of inspiration for this film right down to its shots and camera angles, Mildred and Richard say remarkably little. Their lawyers make longer speeches, and the area racist whites talk even more than they do. To the pushier, more voluble denizens of New York, or D.C., or Los Angeles, their reserve might make the Lovings look somehow deficient, like they were less in control of their own situation than all the others who surround them. This is a misreading of the Lovings, I think. Articulateness is not the only way that intelligence manifests itself.
Nor, Loving suggests, is it the only way to make history. Manohla Dargis puts it well at The New York Times:
Movies get a lot of mileage from the fantasy that we are the heroes of our own stories. Life’s regular hum — the effort and joy of making homes, having children and nourishing love — tends to be drowned out by speeches and dramas in which characters rob banks to get out of debt instead of struggling or despairing. It’s why the insistent, quotidian quiet of “Loving” can feel so startling. It plucks two figures from history and imagines them as they once were, when they were people instead of monuments to American exceptionalism. It was, the movie insists, the absolute ordinariness of their love that defined them, and that made the fight for it into an indelible story of this country.
It may be their ordinariness, too, that makes Loving an effective political film. I was reminded of that, earlier this week, by a tweet from the filmmaker Kogonada: “Political issues void of humanity become dogged abstractions. Humanizing difference is activism. It alters sensibilities. See cinema.” Loving v. Virginia protected the fundamental right of marriage regardless of race, and it reverberated, last year, in the Court’s decision to protect the same right of same-sex couples. But that’s ultimately political abstraction. The value of Loving is that it springs not from such an idea of political right but from a simple compassion for the real needs of two people. Lately, perhaps, that distinction has been all too easy to forget.
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The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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