Racism is one of Hollywood’s favorite subjects to explore, especially come Oscar time, but Hollywood is also a world in which most of those involved in the producing of such films aren’t subject to racism themselves, and so they approach the topic in a hamfisted, overly simplistic manner far too often. We’re sent the message that racism is really bad, something nearly everyone already knows, and that if we could just see things from another point of view we’d be completely cured. Not every movie does this, of course, occasionally you do get a truly nuanced look at the subject, but those nuanced looks rarely win Oscars nor acclaim and instead Hollywood and critics alike award those who give us the obvious and borderline childish “racism is bad” message and pat themselves on the back for another job well done.
Loving is the story of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton respectively) an interracial couple living in rural Virginia who break state law when they go up to Washington D.C. to get married then return home to live. Most biographies overemphasize and occasionally downright falsify dramatic events in the lives of their subjects for the purpose of making an entertaining film, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. In Loving we get a very straightforward look at the lives of Richard and Mildred. Nothing appears to be exaggerated for effect as we are shown how their day to day lives are impacted simply because the two people trying to live simplistically aren’t being allowed to by a very few select people. Most of what we see is a couple who love each other trying to raise a family while living in poverty, with that routine occasionally, and only very occasionally, being attacked by those who find their lifestyle offensive. It’s in this simplicity and matter-of-factness that Loving finds its power.
You would think that in a film like Loving, racial slurs would be par for the course, but Nichols (the writer and director) is too smart to fall into that all too easy to fall into trap. Not once during the film’s entire running time is a racial epithet hurled from one character to another, Nichols gets that the vast majority of people do not consider themselves racist nor hateful, and that most people know that calling someone a name is frowned upon, childish, and just makes you look bad, and that this was true even in the 50’s and 60’s when segregation still existed. Could racists get away with more then than now? Absolutely. But Nichols realizes that those who truly have a vested interest in dividing us through making us care about race are smart enough to not outwardly show their hatred and instead justify making laws to make us hate one another. Rather than screaming prejudiced insults, the characters in Loving who have a vested interest in keeping segregation laws alive use religion, legal precedent, and spurious logic to make their case.
The performances in Loving are also absolutely believable across the board. We really believe that Richard and Mildred just want to be treated as any other couple and just want to be left alone to raise their family. We don’t get monologues or grandstanding, no grand speeches on how they are people just like everyone else. We just get two very low key, soft spoken characters whom can be easily identified with because they are people we know if they aren’t ourselves. The people surrounding the Lovings are also well acted for the most part, though the sheriff’s deputy does get a little too close to a glowering Southern lawman stereotype for my comfort, and those actors playing family members in particular make you forget you are watching a fictionalized drama rather than a documentary at times.
Loving manages to do what most films focusing on racism miss. The simplicity needs to be in the characters and story, not in the message. Hatred rarely takes on the form of gritted teeth and nasty words, that’s just the hatred we notice. Prejudice is at its most insidious when it seems natural, when its justified by the rules and customs we live by, and prejudice rarely upends the lives of those who live large and flamboyantly, it’s those just trying to get by day to day that have to fight it more often. Loving not only gets that, it also gets it across to us. The Lovings just want the right to live together as a married couple like any other married couple, they don’t want to call attention to themselves, and they don’t see how they are doing anything wrong that will affect anyone else. The message isn’t groundbreaking, it doesn’t need to be, but it needs to be told in a way we can not only relate to, but in which we can see ourselves, and that is what Loving does brilliantly.
Rating: 7.8 out of 10