Teodosia Dobriyanova on Jeff Nichols’s ‘Loving’ (2016)
If like me you fail to understand the meaning of Valentine’s day, maybe you should watch Jeff Nichols’ Loving tonight and reconsider the value of the holiday. I used to look at the “lovers’ holiday” with a sceptic’s eye (“I still do, but I used to, too”), but today I saw it from a different perspective. The usual anti-Valentines argument can be narrowed down to a quote from Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004): “Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” So why bother rushing to buy those discounted thematic goods waiting for us on the shelf of our local store? But what if today is actually about something quite different? The answer to what that is can be easily found in Loving and it goes like this: If we are lucky enough, we live in a place and time in which we can love anybody we want on everyday of the year. We can look at Valentine’s day with all the negligence we want, but maybe there should be a special day to celebrate this freedom that we possess and take for granted, because there were times when just loving someone was not at all that simple. Just imagine going to sleep with the person you love and getting arrested later in the night because you’ve done so.
Loving brings us back to a time and place when the latter was reality. In 1950’s and early 1960’s America, interracial marriage was a crime prosecuted by law — a fact eventually changed by years of Civil Rights activism and the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. A a story of love so strong that it changes the constitution of the United States for sure can be considered as colossal and heroic. Within such a tale is a lot of space for spectacle, but the feel presents us in a different, much more realistic way. The Lovings’ story did indeed change history, and lifting a law as absurd as the ban of miscegenation should be celebrated, but the event’s glamorisation as a grandiose gesture takes away its essence — to fight for love as a fundamental human right.
Loving leaves us with the assurance that Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) understands all this. He never seems tempted to slip into sentimentalism or unnecessary glamorisations of love. His Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) are simple people with simple goals and desires. Richard works on construction sites, while Mildred takes care of the household. They want to be able to love each other, build a family and live in the same lands where they have grown up, surrounded by their loved ones. Not so simple. At least not when you’re born with a different skin pigmentation to the person you love. Richard and Mildred are forced to either flee the state and not return together for the next twenty-five years, or face a year in jail. The film follows the next decade of the couple’s life in exile, familiarises its spectators with the couple’s love, their new life in Washington DC, and their three children. Loving explores all this and the emotions in-between so elegantly and subtly, in a way that it never sugarises anything — when one of their children is hit by a car and survives, the event serves to enhance the dramatic action, not to turn it into a melodrama.
And so does everything in Loving. The cinematography, quite practical in the sense that it always serves the film’s narrative purposes, never fails to remain as beautiful and simple as the overall film. Sometimes we are presented with shots of domestic spaces derived from human presence which conventionally serve to raise anticipation in the spectator, but are nevertheless beautiful revelations of domestic intimacy.
The music in the film never anticipates, but simply accompanies events and emotion, never daring to dictate feelings to the spectator. Same goes for the performances — the moments of sentiment shared between the characters are as subtle and unostentatious as shared moments between lovers in-between their everyday endeavours, in this case captured by the LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) whose role in their love story, as well as Shannon’s performance, is just as brilliant and unobtrusive as everything else in this film.
Formally, the film carries its contextual — love is simple and no person should be punished for loving another, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, social state and what not. The film ends with the Loving family finally building their dream house in the fields of their hometown. In the meantime, intertitles of future events flow through the harmonious scene to inform us that Richard will die in a car crash seven years from this moment and Mildred will miss him until the end of her life. However, the scene of them in the field never disappears — life is life and it ends, but not they’re not there yet. So happy Valentine’s day.