Race Matters

Quiet, modest, exceptional: a review of the film Loving

Mixed race couples are all but unremarkable in contemporary storytelling, but it wasn't all that long ago that they were illegal in the United States. Runnymede's Administrator Carol Sidney reviews Loving, released this month.

Loving (Raindog Films, 2017) presents the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an everyday couple who had their domestic lives turned upside down by the institutionalised racism of 1960s-Jim-Crow-race-obsessed America. Mildred is a black woman and Richard is a white man; and in this world, black and white humans are forbidden to marry one another.  Here, the loathing of black people is a living, visceral thing, inscribed into law. Here, the children of such bonds are considered abominations.  Here, the history of slavery, fundamentally lodged on the rape of black women and the labour of their children, is denied. In this world, black, white and Native American live side by side, but separated, and yet paradoxically able to eke out lives together in the face of rigid racial social norms.

But then, love is love. Human attachment and sentiment often defy, confound or transcend man-made barriers. So, when the Lovings choose to marry, despite local laws, they are forced to endure the interference of the State into their modest lives, which they then challenge, leading to the landmark 1967 case Loving vs. Virginia.

Though ‘based on a true story’ has become a cliché of contemporary US and UK cinema, serving as an easy way for filmmakers to present compelling drama, Loving is exceptional. As writer and director, Jeff Nichols has gone for a degree of authenticity which threatens to overturn what we have come to understand drama is there to do: to indulge our fantasies, to disseminate celebrity culture, to provide an escape into costume and opulent houses and epic emotion, and to generally uphold the notion that the epically rich and the epically beautiful and the usually white are the ones who should dominate our cinematic frame. This film is in stark contrast to this notion, and a rare counterpoint.

Loving could easily have been a genre-based, showy, overblown courtroom drama, and, rather like junk food – tasty and delicious during consumption, but then easily forgotten and not very nutritious. Instead, Nichols’ storytelling is quiet, simple, spare, understated - much like the Lovings themselves -  and so the impact of the story lingers.  So devoted is he to presenting an ‘as-it-was-lived’ copy of what became historic events that, for instance, the original jailhouse where Richard spent one night, and Mildred five, is used in the film.  In the same sequence, instead of inventing a violent confrontation with the arresting officer Sherriff Brooks, and rather than seeking cheap outrage by drawing attention to the different treatment between white husband and black wife, Nichols simply has Richard keep a silent, anxious vigil in a car outside the jailhouse, all night, unable to leave his pregnant wife, fearful and totally alone. She couldn’t see him, but it was what he could do to protect her.

The sensitivity of such a scene speaks volumes more than any anti-racist treatise. Loving is one of the very best examples of this kind of filmmaking, allowing the audience to inhabit forgotten traces of our collective racial history, in a way that rediscovers the humanity, the human frailty and emotion unavailable in a news report. This is especially poignant for black people's history, as news reports have long been the only way we have accessed their stories. Loving is powerful both for the presentation of rediscovered history and the ‘as-literal-as-can-be’ sense of ‘being there’.

Close attention is paid to the Virginian accent, with Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving inscribing this aspect of authenticity as a central part of his performance. Costume, houses, location and interiors reflect, sometimes literally, the Lovings’ poor, rural lives. Both Richard and Mildred (Ruth Negga) are played with minimal dialogue; maximum meaning is given over to silence, looks, body language and gesture.  Their bond is unwavering, never questioned, never doubted, either by themselves or their immediate friends and family and, in effect, their bond becomes the protagonist to the State of Virginia as antagonist. People versus State. Love versus hate.

Daringly, scenes are devoid of additional music for the first twenty-five minutes of the film, and into this silence the audience is in the unusual position of having to find their own way into the story, find their own relationship with the characters, without the heavy guide of orchestral music manipulating what they should feel. The effect is to leave us experiencing Richard and Mildred’s fear and humiliation afresh.  It leaves us marvelling at the absurdities of race obsession, marvelling that this was just fifty years ago, and serves as a timely reminder that we are still not, even in 2017, beyond race.
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