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‘Loving’: Putting a human face on America’s Civil Rights era

Written By | Dec 30, 2016

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2016 – Jeff Nichols is not a subtle movie maker. Everything about his films is measured and meticulous. The points he makes, the connections he draws, and the themes he pushes are there in every shot and sequence. Each film he makes is pointed and purposeful, and sometimes risks collapsing under the weight of his direction, but he’s always thoughtful enough to see his vision through.

These hallmarks were never more true than in his most recent, highly-regarded film, “Loving.” Released just in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season (and for potential Academy Award nominations), this movie follows the legal, moral and personal struggles of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), who fall in love in 1950s rural Virginia.

Legally married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, the newlyweds soon learns the hard way that, as a mixed race couple, they have violated the Commonwealth’s then-existing law prohibiting interracial marriage. Suddenly, these young, average Americans find themselves at the center of one of the key battles that helped launch the 1960s Civil Rights Era.

“Loving” details the couple’s multi-year legal battle against the Commonwealth’s antiquated law, a case that was ultimately resolved by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 “Loving v. Virginia” decision, which declared the Virginia law to be unconstitutional. The case created a new moral and racial reality in America and has ramifications even today.

In a film like this one that involves sweeping social changes, one element that’s often missed is the human element, the deeply personal and emotional challenges experienced by average individuals who find themselves swept up by an epic event, the likes of which they had never envisioned in their lives. Suddenly thrust into the front line of such a battle, they don’t necessarily dwell on how the outcome will affect the masses in the future. Instead, they’re just trying to figure out how to live their lives in the immediate present tense. It’s this deeply personal experience that Nichols is careful not to miss in his film.

“Loving” is ultimately less the story of an epic sociopolitical battle than it is the story of a relationship/marriage of Richard and Mildred. Much of its focus is on Richard, centering on his persistence and his ability to put his head down and just get through daily life. He just wants to be with his wife, protect and provide for his kids, and do the construction work he felt he was meant to do. But just as poignant is Mildred’s everyday perspective on life, which Nichols takes great care to give equal time.

While Richard is stalwart and methodical, Mildred is much more fluid. Her ultimate objectives are aligned with Richard’s. But her methodology changes throughout the film, particularly when they are forced to leave the state. Though cut off from familiar territory, Richard seems able to adapt and exist, but Mildred has a tougher time, and her frame of mind deteriorates.

Nichols is careful to balance the film’s movement by giving equal time to Mildred’s point of view after the couple’s effective exile. One key element of her personal story: after they leave Virginia, Mildred no longer experiences overt racism. But she does experience something more insidious. Her extended family and support group has been ripped from her by systemic oppression.

Mildred’s physical being is relatively unharmed. But the panic of being forced, essentially, to live on an island in Washington, D.C., weighs heavily. She might be in more danger by continuing to live in Virginia. But at least she knows she’s close to her support system. D.C. on the other hand is an unknown where the potential negatives seem limitless.

The oppression Mildred faces through the middle of the film – despite the never faltering support of Richard – shows just how abusive systemic racism can be without delivering a single tangible blow. By isolating Mildred, the “system” destroys any sense of safety and hope she may have had. That makes it of the utmost importance that she and Richard eventually return to Virginia despite risking the threat of an extended prison sentence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Loving” rarely touches, directly at least, on the influence “Loving v. Virginia” had on the greater Civil Rights Movement at the time, but that’s still an important part of what transpired. To the contrary, this film’s real focus is on Mildred and Richard as human beings, not only with regard to their personal relationship but also with regard to the role of their respective races in the social and moral universe.

While she’s not active in any real way with the Civil Rights Movement, the fact that it exists makes Mildred a stronger person and emboldens her to do what she feels is right, not just for her but her family and community as well.

Richard, however, is not neglected in this real-life moral and social tale. As the film clearly demonstrates from the very beginning, Richard has immersed himself in the black community in Caroline County to an unusual degree. It’s something that seems natural to him but perhaps not to anyone else, save for Mildred and her father.

But Richard also understands that his role in the larger legal struggle is qualitatively different. As a white man in Virginia he is also made aware on multiple occasions that he can hit the ejection button and end his troubles any time he wants.

The final time he is reminded of this by a close black friend—namely that most of his hardships are his own doing by stubbornly staying with Mildred and having kids with her—the advice becomes more pointed. While he might empathize with the larger plight of Virginia’s black citizens, Richard is told, he ultimately doesn’t face the same consequences blacks do for defying Virginia’s laws and racial traditions. It’s a tense scene because it arises from a very real sense of anger, not really at Richard, but gulf between the races that’s imposed without regard to personal relationships.

The scene feels like it could turn into a physical confrontation but never does because Richard stays quiet the throughout. The reason for that is because he knows it’s absolutely true. When he finally breaks down in front of Mildred, it becomes clear just how much the weight of her situation consistently comes down on him as well. Richard has become the foundation for Mildred to build her community around.

At its core, “Loving” is all about building personal foundations. Nichols is meticulous about quietly hammering this point home. It’s there as he presents Richard and Mildred with their kids again and again as a unit; in Mildred’s insistence on returning to her family; or with the recurring visuals in which Richard is always building something, ranging from houses to cars to barns. As sappy as it sounds, Nichols makes the love between Richard and Mildred the absolute foundation of a film that is indeed all about loving.

Some may criticize this film for not focusing on the lengthy court case that lies at its core. But the actual court case isn’t the focus of the story Nichols is trying to tell. Transforming this film into a courtroom drama –while it’s certainly important on a macro level – doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to the personal face of this case and the sorrows and hardships real people actually had to experience. That’s what “Loving” is all about.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.