Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 08, 2016 2:47 am 
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RUTH NEGGA AND JOEL EDGERTON IN LOVING

An understated tale from Jeff Nichols

Loving, about a landmark Supreme Court case that ruled "miscegenation" laws on marriage unconstitutional, is a different direction for Texas director Jeff Nichols, whose regular star Michael Shannon appears only briefly, ceremonially, one might say, as Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet. (These were the days when Life photographers were legendary and Life was the eyes of the nation.) Loving deserves a small but solid place among the best American movies of the year for its rigorous restraint. It is so understated that it may leave little impression, though it's hard to forget the line, "Tell him I love my wife."

The essence of the story is that this Virginia white man and Virginia black woman are unexpected heroes who have little that is heroic about them. They love each other. It's the late Fifties. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) grew up together in a fringe community where black, white, and Native American strains blend. His mother is a midwife. They are considered "white trash," an inferior race apart, so far beyond the pale they blend with "coloreds." Mildred becomes pregnant by Richard, a solid stonemason and winning drag racer and a man of few words. Joel Edgerton, the powerful Australian actor who has had explosive roles in movies like Animal Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty, makes a tremendous impression by his taut restraint here; but Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga has quiet luminosity that holds its own. Richard deems it appropriate to marry, and they run up to Washington where inter-racial marriages aren't prohibited. But when they come back, the police led by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas, also from Australia, also memorable) take them to jail.

They are eventually released in a local ruling that lets them go free only if they do not return to the state of Virginia for 25 years. But Mildred wants have her baby under the protection of Richard's mother. They sneak back and get arrested in Virginia again, and are given a severe warning, and return to live in DC. In a few years they have three cute children. But Mildred doesn't like raising kids in the city. When the March on Washington of 1964 comes, she is inspired to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and request help in their case, so they can return to live in Virginia. He refers their case to the ACLU, and the rest is history. The Court will declare marriage to be an inherent human right. (Same sex marriage had yet to be widely included, of course.)

It is not events but personalities that stand out in this film. Casting Csokas as the sheriff was a wise move that avoids villainous stereotyping. He projects complexity, a man of stern, if utterly wrong, conviction. Even the Life photographer is shy when he takes the iconic picture of Richard nestling his head happily in MIldred's lap as they watch TV. Richard refuses to go to the Supreme Court when their case is heard. It's the brash young ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who asks him if he has any message for the Chief Justice and elicits the reply, "Tell him that I love my wife." Enough said. His family name is who he is, loving, and marriage must be about loving, not "purity."

Joel Edgerton, with his solid, stiff body, pale blue eyes, and close crewcut hair so blond it's almost white, dominates this film. His craftsmanship is so great he makes Richard Loving a real and intractable undefinable being. But with protagonists that want only to be ordinary and main events that occur off screen, this film, a trip out to left field for Jeff Nichols, may seem too low key to bother about. You should bother. It's a subject that matters and a treatment that has class, even of some sequences moving the legal tale along are routine.

Nichol's screenplay is based on the documentary "The Loving Story" by Nancy Buirski that was broadcast 14 Feb. 2012 on HBO. An International Center for Photography web page about a Jan. - May 2012 show of Grey Villet's photos of the Loving at the Center notes that Grey Villet's "intimate images" made for the magazine were "uncovered" by Buirski while making the documentary. The website shows a couple of the 20 vintage prints included in the show. Clearly the film drew on the photos too: the three joyous little kids, the affectionate couple.

Loving, 123 mins., debuted at Cannes 16 May 2016; eight other festivals including Toronto and Mill Valley. US wide release begins 4 Nov. 2016 (reviews favorable but not ecstatic: Metacritic rating 77%). UK 3 Feb. 2017, France 15 Feb. Screened for this review at Regal Union Square, NYC, 6 Nov. 2016.

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MILDREN AND RICHARD LOVING

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