I’m of the mindset that historical dramas and social issues pieces, often derided as self-important and grandiose, are getting better. Films like “Spotlight,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have dramatized America’s past with unflinching honesty and aesthetic rigor. Yet there is still a straw man of the prestige picture that looms in the critical imagination, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” seems to exist in stark contrast to this imagined bundle of clichés.
Nichols runs counter to so many impulses dominating filmmaking that historicizes the contemporary. Without belittling the importance of belaboring the significance of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose arrest led to a Supreme Court case overturning bans on interracial marriage, he moves the political steadfastly back into the realm of the personal. The simple elegance of “Loving” is evident in every scene of Joel Edgerton’s Richard returning to lay bricks and every disapproving gaze from their provincial Virginian neighbors. Society is slow to change, attitudes are tough to dislodge, but sometimes unsuspecting individuals like the Lovings can help turn the tide in our culture with their radical ordinariness.
Perhaps one of Nichols’ boldest casting choices was selecting Nick Kroll (yes, The Douche from “Parks & Recreation”) as Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who helps guide the Lovings’ case all the way to the highest court in the land. It’s more than stunt casting or going boldly against type like Seth Rogen did in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Kroll’s instinct to play his scenes with the Lovings as incredulity underscored with comedy helps tremendously to enhance the realism of the moment. Richard and Mildred were not dying to become star defendants in a landmark case. They find themselves, reluctantly, at the center of history after Mildred (Ruth Negga) writes what she assumes is a throwaway letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Their naïveté about the role they can come to play in American racial dynamics is almost ridiculous, both to Cohen and to a present-day audience.
As Cohen tries to shape the unassuming Lovings into monument marchers in the film’s final act – which is admirably the only time the court case comes into the picture – Nichols ensures that the couple gets their due as two humans who want to live out their marriage covenant without any fuss. The focus on normalcy of character over extraordinariness of accomplishment makes for a fitting vehicle to honor them. Yet, at the same time, the stoic spirit of “Loving” also feels like a pointed rejoinder to biopic conventions. It’s a pendulum swing for the genre as much as anything, calculated and somewhat distancing.
Nichols still gets touching, tender performances from Edgerton and Negga that elevate the humanity above the reactionary manipulation of expectations. Edgerton, in particular, is quite riveting as he comes to reckon with an existential crisis of not being able to protect his wife. He needs lawyers and judges to validate their relationship. All social privileges he might claim as a white man fall away in the wake of his ongoing dispute. The media steps in to mediate the image he projects to the world. And through it all, Richard is just a man who wants to fulfill his duty to provide and to love – a mission Edgerton carries with him at all times. B /