Film Review: Loving deals with what matters
With the ongoing rise of the civil rights movement during 1960s America, issues of prejudice and discrimination came to the forefront of American households, threatening the freedom of choice for many. Groups arose, voicing their concerns over the segregation of race, gender and class through nationwide marches attended by thousands and televised into households throughout the country.
In an act of defiance however, sometimes silence can be a powerful way of protesting for what is right and fair. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving opens with this long silence followed by a close-up which focuses on Mildred’s concerned face as she informs Richard of her pregnancy. Nichols foreshadows this concern by drawing parallels between the uncertainty of pregnancy with that of anticipation, Loving’s story celebrating the intimate bond the couple share whilst alluding to the possibility of agony and pain they may face as a result of their union.
As an interracial couple Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving’s relationship was met with scrutiny and societal judgment in the context of segregation and discrimination carried out by the state of Virginia. Based on a real life case titled ‘Loving v Virginia’ this civil rights case of 1967 is said to have redefined the constitution of marriage as a fundamental right for all citizens.
In Loving, marriage is a stable way in which the family unit is formed, nurtured and realised through scenes stereotypical to family values of the time, including the sharing of meals, the man of the house going to work and the woman of the house taking care of domestic duties. Nichols presents a traditional outlook on family values popularised in 1960s America possibly with the advent of television in many households at the time. In doing so, the interracial relationship between Richard and Mildred in Loving adheres to what is ‘normal’ or acceptable for us in a post civil rights era. As the audience we are made to feel a sense of injustice that the government or those granted authority use race as an excuse for the mistreatment of our protagonists.
The mistreatment of Richard and Mildred as an interracial couple is justified by an array of excuses purely because their relationship varies from the norm. A reason for the separation of races made reference to the biblical account of the tower of Babel, in which God’s separation of racial groups meant that interracial relations were not to be accepted. Another is the encouragement of divorce as a solution to police persecution faced by the Lovings. In both cases, the justification for their separation a) does not understand the origins of the biblical account and misinterprets scripture, and b) fails to recognise the consequences of the divorce in which adhering to traditional societal norms removes the stability within the family unit of which the Loving children are nurtured and raised.
Identity extends towards place and is realised through the individuals and their relationship with others within their community. In forcing the relocation of the Lovings from their home in Virginia due to the state’s ruling, a sense of place or belonging is removed with no definite formation of identity due to the separation of the Richard and Mildred from their extended family. When the police invade the Loving’s home at night and kick down their bedroom door, forcefully removing them from their bed, the validity of their relationship is not taken into account despite evidence of their marriage license as seen on the wall. Marriage, as it seems is allowed only by the permissions of those who govern the places we reside.
As citizens of the state of Virginia, the Lovings have to obey the law as defined by their government’s set regulations and are placed at the mercy of the justice system for their freedom in choosing whom to marry. When a character attacks Richard (Edgerton) with an insult of, ‘your daddy worked for a nigger… you dumb ass’ not only is Richard verbally attacked on a personal level, everyone he loves is also attacked by the insult. Here Nichols shows how the criminalisation of interracial couples dehumanises both racial groups.
Under the cover of darkness, what would be usually seen as normative behaviour is now criminalised. Richard has to visit Mildred in secret, they are thrown in jail for being themselves, and the state’s ruling separates the time they are allowed to spend together by forcing Richard to commute over a longer period to and from work. There are unspoken moments in which we as the audiences like the couple become witnesses, observers of the circumstances of which they find themselves. We feel helpless as we watch the story unfold. Parallels can be drawn as well, between civil rights of the time with that of today namely issues of equality whether it be of race, gender, sexuality, or age.
The introduction of broadcast television during the early 60s introduced the outside world into the intimacy of the family home bringing a rise in awareness of civil rights issues through the televising of protests, marches, and speeches. In Loving, Mildred becomes aware of this after watching footage of a march and decides to write a letter Robert Kennedy, Attorney General at the time, speaking about her situation. Activism through letter writing makes it personal; it affects individuals and draws us as an audience closer to a cause. Reporters interview the Lovings outside of a courthouse, in their home, and a photographer from Time Magazine takes intimate photos of the couple spending time together. In Loving, media, in particular television coverage, is used to develop national interest regarding the Loving’s case. Like many storytelling mediums we too as an audience become aware of the Loving’s story though Nichols’ script.
Loving is a political film, a statement of defiance shown through simply the telling of the Loving’s story. Their return to Virginia cements their identity as a couple which is found in their relationship and not defined by state regulations.
‘Tell the judge that I love my wife’, Richard Loving says to his lawyer upon being asked to give a statement in regards to the couple’s case against the state of Virginia. Through the use of outfits that compliment each other, close-ups and glances exchanged between the two leads the viewer quickly becomes convinced of the love between Richard and Mildred. A glance, the holding of the hands, a hug, and a simple kiss is all that is needed to convey the bond between the two. It’s a nice refreshing take on what would be considered romance, a genre typically flooded with visuals of a couple passionately engrossed under the covers of a dimly lit room seeking intimacy and warmth from the outside world.
Although I found Loving to be slow-paced, I enjoyed Nichols’ decision to focus on Richard and Mildred even from the start of the film. It made it more personal and the focus was not merely on civil rights but on their story. Despite strong political statement made in the film regarding attitudes towards interracial relationships of the time, Loving is about the Lovings. Legislation was changed, history was made, a case was won but the simple storyline and a clear statement echoed the film throughout made the message clear; Richard and Mildred’s love for one another is what truly mattered. Nichols, in choosing to focus on the exchange of dialogue between Richard and Mildred Loving in the opening scenes of the film as opposed to footage of civil rights protests, draws our attention on what truly matters, two people who love each other no matter what others say.
Words by Addy Fong.