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'Loving' is careful not to offend

The film tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage in Washington, D.C., in 1958 runs afoul of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The film comes across as a well-intentioned history lesson.

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    Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga appear in a scene from ‘Loving.’
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“Loving” is a decent and heartfelt movie that, rarity of rarity these days, suffers from being too decent and heartfelt. It is so careful not to give offense that, in some ways, it’s more admirable for what it doesn’t do than for what it does. 

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, it’s about Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white construction worker, and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a black field worker, both from rural Caroline County, Va., whose marriage in Washington, D.C., in 1958 runs afoul of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. This set in motion a case that ultimately was settled in their favor almost a decade later in a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court. 

The film is mostly about what led up to that settlement and how the American Civil Liberties Union, represented by two aggressively idealistic young lawyers (played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass), persuaded the couple to help strike down the law, which dated back to 1924. In her typically understated way, Mildred recognizes the importance of their case; Richard, who is less a man of few words than a man of no words, doesn’t like the spotlight that the ACLU puts on him. “You get what you pay for,” he scoffs when he hears that the lawyers are working pro bono.

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The trouble begins early, when Richard, after proposing to the pregnant Mildred on the acre of Virginia farmland where he plans to build their house, elopes with her to Washington. Returning to Virginia, they are arrested and hauled off to jail. To avoid a yearlong prison term, both agree to exile themselves from Virginia – that is to say, from both of their families, their jobs, and most of their friends – for 25 years. 

The Lovings are appropriately named. Never is it even intimated that they will not stick together. When a buddy of Richard’s only half-jokingly suggests that he would be better off divorced, Richard is not so much angry as stunned. It is beyond his comprehension that he would do such a thing.

Other similar comments abound: Richard’s mother (Sharon Blackwood), a midwife who managed the birth of the couple’s baby, rues the marriage; so does Mildred’s sister (Terri Abney). But we know, even if some of the people in this film do not, that the Lovings are on the right side of history. 

What this means, in dramatic terms, is that “Loving” often comes across as a well-intentioned history lesson. And even that aspect is skimped. Although Nichols inserts a few newsreel clips from the era, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights agitations in the Deep South at that time. 

Nichols is so careful not to heat up the film’s temperate zone that he plays down the rich psychological complexity of scene after scene. It’s not a matter of avoiding melodrama. Why is it, for example, that nothing is made of the fact that Richard, with his good ol’ boy Southern background, finds it easier to be around black people than most whites? What formed this man? And what do his white buddies and co-workers make of it? Or, for that matter, his black friends? Or Mildred’s?

If everybody in the South in the 1950s had these equable attitudes, there wouldn’t have been a Racial Integrity Act in the first place. Even the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) and judge (David Jensen) who put away the couple are depicted as just doing their jobs, as they perhaps were, given the laws of the land. Still, the surfeit of goodness that runs through this film seems more idealistic than realistic.

It’s a goodness that at least rings true with the Lovings themselves, whose devotion to each other under such an onslaught is convincingly steely. This is due in large part to Negga’s performance, which gives Mildred’s reticence a righteous core. (Edgerton, by contrast, overdoes Richard’s sullenness.) But again, was there never a time in this saga when the Lovings’ marriage buckled under the tension, when tempers flared? It should not have been necessary to sanctify the Lovings in order to sanctify their cause. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements.)

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