Cannes Day 6: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’ takes human approach to historic civil rights case

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Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton talk about "Loving" in Cannes.
Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton talk about "Loving" in Cannes.

Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton talk about “Loving” in Cannes.

 

Austin director Jeff Nichols takes a thankfully quiet approach to what was once a controversial topic in “Loving,” which details the battle to legalize interracial marriage in the United States.

Instead of presenting people arguing about ideas and politics, he instead starts to film slowly, showing a romance between Richard and Mildred Loving, who hold hands, kiss and live quietly in a racially diverse Virginia community. Richard (Joel Edgerton) works in construction and hangs out with African-Americans on the drag race circuit. He’s good. And his car usually wins.

One day, Richard decides to ask Mildred to marry him, and they drive to D.C. to do the deed. Then they go back to their rural Virginia home and try to start a family. No politics. No ideology. No debates. Just love.

It’s a crucial strategy, because what eventually happens to them seems so far out of the norm of what’s right. They’re arrested and eventually told that they can’t live together as man and wife in the state of Virginia. So they move to D.C. and live there for a few years. But Mildred worries about her children not having any green space to play, and she pleads with Richard to move back home. She also writes a letter about her plight to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who forwards the note to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Neither Richard nor Mildred is a firebrand. Each wants to live quietly and raise a family. But when push comes to shove, Mildred is more of a mover and shaker than Richard, thinking that their case might actually help other people in similar situations. The ACLU agrees, and the case goes to the Supreme Court, which issued a historic 1967 ruling that marriage was an inherent right.

As Nichols said after the screening, he wanted to tell the story, “to get to the heart of this,” by just focusing on the people, Richard and Mildred. He added that many political debates today seem to revolve around ideas rather than people — and that people are at the center of these stories.

“I wanted to make a movie about two people in love, not a courtroom drama,” he said. “This is the quiet film of the year, and I hope it makes people think.”

As Mildred, Negga is brilliant. She has an easy smile, an humble bearing, but also has resolve. As Richard, Edgerton tries to contain his emotions, do his work and be cautious about making any kind of statement other than he loves his wife.

Nichols pointed out that the Supreme Court can do only so much, and that such cases take a while to play out in the rest of the nation, in part because of fears.

He said he hopes “Loving” will at least remind folks that real people are at the center of all these debates, and that if we can understand them, then maybe we can accept our differences.

That seems like a simple message. Maybe “Loving” will figure into the awards season and continue the discussion later this year.


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