Tuesday, November 22, 2016

LOVING: A Heart-Rending, Sadly Timely History Lesson

Starts today at an indie art house near me:

LOVING (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2016)

One of the best films featured at the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was Nancy Buirski’s THE LOVING STORY, which laid out in fascinating detail how a Virginia couple’s biracial marriage led to a landmark Supreme Court case that was successful in overturning the law banning interracial marriage in 1967.

I’m not usually a fan of films that adapt documentaries into dramas – I mean, who needs to see LORDS OF DOGTOWN, or the 2009 HBO telefilm GREY GARDENS when the docs DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYZ and the original 1975 Maysles brothers’ film of the same name cover their subjects’ stories so definitively?

But, Nichols’ adaptation, which also draws upon Phyl Newbeck’s 2005 book “Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers,” is an excellent companion piece to Buirski’s * essential doc as it delivers top notch performances, an immersive tone, and a well paced narrative that’s compelling even when you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Joel Edgerton (THE GREAT GATSBY, THE GIFT) and Ruth Negga (WORLD WAR Z, the AMC TV series Preacher) portray Richard and Mildred Loving, who we meet as a young couple living in a working-class community in rural Virginia that we see doting on each other as they attend drag races, and parties, while planning to build their dream house in the first idyllic fifteen minutes of this film that’s only mildly marred by some forced laughing.

The couple, who have a baby on the way, drive to Washington D.C. to get married with Mildred’s father (Christopher Mann) coming along as a witness to the event, but shortly afterward back at home they are woken up in the middle of the night by a police raid that lands both of them in jail.

After Richard is bailed out he tries to bail out his wife, but is told by the ultra evil, and obviously ultra racist sheriff who arrested them that told they have to divorce or they will be forced to leave the state. Richard and Mildred sadly move to D.C., leaving behind their loved ones, but they illegally return months later in order to have the baby delivered by Richard’s midwife mother (Sharon Blackwood) and are promptly arrested again.

Their lawyer Frank Beazley (Bill Camp) comes to the couple’s aid, telling the judge (another evil racist played by David Jensen) that he mistakenly told them they could return for their baby’s birth, which the judge accepts. Afterwards, Beazley tells them that this is the last time he can help; the next time they violate the terms of their sentence could result in prison time.

In the years that follow, the Lovings raise three children in their row house apartment in DC, until Mildred is inspired to write then Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their predicament (“Get yourself some civil rights!” exclaims their landlord Laura played by Andrene Ward-Hammond).

Before long, Mildred gets a call from American Civil Liberties lawyer Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), who shocks her when he says that the ACLU will handle their case free of charge. Kroll, in a rare dramatic role for the comedian, is paired with Jon Bass as Phil Hirschkop, a more experienced civil rights layer, and they both get a bit giddy with the idea that the case could alter the Constitution of the United States.

LOVING is a conventional, straight forward drama that has a few misguided melodramatic moments, but nothing that dims its sincere, and heart wrenching power.

Both Edgerton and Negga have been quietly putting in strong work over the years, but their sharp, lived-in portrayals here deserve a lot of attention, and awards season action. Especially Negga, who can convey so much with the smallest of expressions. Her Mildred is convincingly and touchingly the brain, and the heart of the couple, contrasted with Edgerton’s Richard, who’s a bit thickheaded but displays the gruff strength and conviction to keep his family together.

They are surrounded by a fine ensemble, which includes a cameo by Nichols regular Michael Shannon as Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet. Another Nichols veteran, David Wingo, contributes the film’s sometimes a bit too eerie, but never too cloying score.

Nichols’ film, which he scripted, does contain many of the formula tropes of Oscar-baiting biopics including the standard text at the end to bring the audience up to date, and the obligatory photo of the real couple that appears before the credits, but these elements don’t feel as clich├ęd here as they do elsewhere. Perhaps because they are serving a much more deserving dramatization of history than what we’ve come to expect this time of year.

In the age of Trump (man, I hated typing that), a story about fighting racism is as timely as can be, but this film teaches a lesson that would be just as important for people to learn and appreciate even if our country had elected the more qualified candidate.

As the saying goes, “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” Right now, when it sure looks like we are doomed, it’s more crucial than ever that we look back at the times that we as the people of this great, but greatly flawed country actually got something right.

* Buirski is also one of the producers of LOVING.

More later...

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