At the press conference for Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which premiered yesterday in competition at Cannes, several entertainment journalists were nearly giddy about the prospects of Oscar nominations for the film’s stars—Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.
The “Oscar buzz” around Nichols’s film is a reminder that art can never be totally separated from commerce at Cannes. Although the many press junkets for Hollywood films that take place during the Toronto International Film Festival in September are usually more focused on awards season than Cannes (which usually schedules commercial Hollywood fare as out-of-competition entries and offers a few star-studded movies more as sops to the studios than part of a concerted agenda), the love-in for Loving is the exception that proves the rule.
An anguished, but low-key, meditation on race—American’s ongoing obsession—Loving is the most high-minded sort of Oscar bait. Few Americans under sixty probably realize that interracial marriage was, as recently as the 1960s, illegal in 28 states. Two seminal victims of the notorious “crime” of miscegenation—a white working-class Virginia man named Richard Loving and his biracial wife Mildred (half African-American, half Native American)—are at the center of Loving, which, the trappings of the historical film notwithstanding, is more restrained melodrama than historical epic.
While the Lovings’ strange saga inspired Nanci Burski’s excellent 2011 documentary The Loving Story, Nichols’s film is less about the social and political ramifications of a miscarriage of justice than an intimate narrative about two people in love who remained befuddled throughout their lives by why their marriage was considered an abomination by their fellow Southerners.
Even though America is still far from a post-racial society, the events that unfold in Loving drive home the realization that something close to de facto apartheid flourished in Cold War America.
Following their marriage in Washington, D.C. in 1958, the Lovings were arrested and thrown into jail for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in their home state of Virginia. They avoided a lengthy sentence by agreeing to leave the state for 25 years. Urged to write Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their plight, Mildred and Richard eventually receive assistance from ACLU lawyer Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll). After appeals courts refuse to strike down this notorious anti-miscegenation statute, the Supreme Court finally declares all such laws unconstitutional in 1967.
At yesterday’s press conference, Nichols called the Lovings’ relationship “the purest love story in American history.” While some snippets from television broadcasts remind the audience that this struggle for an earlier form of marriage equality took place during the most turbulent days of the Civil Rights movement, Nichols maintains that he was more interested in people than politics, perhaps a slightly disingenuous assertion when fictionalizing a personal story that possessed far-reaching political consequences. In any case, Edgerton, who hails from Australia, distills the essence of Richard Loving’s shyness and self-effacement—as well as his profound, if usually repressed, anger. And Negga, born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland, nails Mildred Loving’s soft Virginia intonations and demure manner with startling acuity.
Loving’s noble intentions are unassailable. The film, however, is somewhat marred by Nichols’ Terrence Malick-like quirks (the influence of Malick on Nichols has been well-documented and his style could be categorized as Malick Lite) and his occasionally strained attempts to give the material near-metaphysical weight with a languid pace filled with pregnant pauses. Nichols’ propensity for self-consciously arty compositions brings to mind the late film critic Manny Farber’s complaints about what he termed white elephant art: the urge to “treat every inch of the screen…as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.” The in-your-face nature of Nichols’s visuals seemed more suited to some of his previous projects, films indebted to the conventions of fantasy and science-fiction and generally less tethered to specific historical realities—particularly Take Shelter (2011) and this year’s Midnight Special.
Of course, critics can whine all they like. There’s little doubt that thousands will be moved by Loving’s success in depicting a couple’s quiet heroism—and the performances that will help to enshrine their legacy.