In director Jeff Nichols' latest feature, Loving, it's 1958 in the Virginia countryside and Mildred and Richard are an interracial couple in love. Mildred is a few months pregnant, so why not drive to Washington D.C. and get married in a more sympathetic jurisdiction? A few scenes later, the police barge into their home, yank the couple out of bed and drag them to separate jail cells for the crime of miscegenation.
Ruth Negga stars as Mildred and Joel Edgerton stars as her strong and simple husband, Richard. Mildred and Richard were real people, and Loving was their real last name. Later in the film they'll end up in the real-life 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. (Not since the documentary Weiner has a last name done so much work). Richard posts bail relatively quickly, but he's not allowed to bail Mildred out until morning, and the authorities will only release her to her family.
What happened to the Lovings is upsetting and wrong, and who among us, in the relative safety of 2016, would argue that it isn't? Only the most dogged of racists, and unfortunately they're out there. Perhaps we'll hear again from the fellow who got in touch a few reviews back, the one who thinks the Holocaust never happened.
Nichols has directed a string of accomplished pictures, including Midnight Special from earlier this year and 2012's Mud. His style shines with quiet confidence, and so it does here. Loving looks terrific from the start, with expansive landscapes from a simpler time. Hearty, hard-working people of all races inhabit this world with furrowed brows and stolid purpose. It's Americana fit for a postcard, but with troubling racist undertones.
For me, Nichols was at his best in the 2011 film Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon as a man undone by his premonition (or delusion) about a big storm on the horizon. That film was rated R, and Loving is rated PG-13. I have a bias against just about any grown-up film that sophisticatedly sidesteps the R rating. I can't help but be aware that under the safe umbrella of the PG-13 rating, nothing truly bad can happen.
The Lovings go before a judge to answer for their dastardly crimes and are forced to cut a deal: They can avoid prison time if they leave Virginia for 25 years. The movie's white people are smug and think they're being generous, but of course it's a cruel arrangement. The Lovings oblige and proceed to have three children in D.C., but it's not what they wanted. Mildred in particular feels homesick for her family and the country life they've left behind in Virginia. Before long, the 1960s arrive. Their case gains the attention of the ACLU, and the story begins to slowly put on its "biopic of a historic court case" clothing.
I understand Nichols' instinct to depict the Lovings as the uncomplicated people they apparently were, but quite frankly it makes for a muted and boring filmgoing experience. This isn't gripping cinema. It's a big-budget Lifetime movie with above-average actors. (Compare Loving to Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, which treats a similar subject, and you'll see what I mean).
More than that, the lessons here strike me as entirely too safe for the current political climate. I fear that the same people whose hearts are warmed by the Lovings' romance will use that feeling to justify their belief that—see?—we're all the same, and "all lives matter." Of course all lives matter. That's so obvious that it's patronizing to repeat it. The point is that black lives matter, too. Forgive me if you didn't need that lecture. It's just that this film—it has me worried.
Loving opens at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 9.