Locked Up for Loving

This one made a soft splash on the Hollywood scene. Loving came out of nowhere, said what it needed to say, and then left quietly, leaving a modest ripple in the Oscar nominations. By now, we’ve seen quite a few dramas profiling the state of human rights in America’s not so distant past. But Loving is a little different. It may concern the fight for interracial marriage, but really it focuses on just two people. There’s a lawyer who does some stuff and a judge who says some things. Then there are two people who just want to grow old near their families, raise their kids in the country, and keep bar nights with friends. Loving is a story about two people who just so happened to help a great many others.

It is clear from the very beginning that Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) are in love. This young couple from Virginia want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together. The trouble is, Richard is a blonde, blue-eyed white man, Mildred is a slender black woman, and the year is 1958. It may be hard to see the problem through the lens of 2017 so let me say it the same way as the Virginia officer: robins and sparrows are different and should not mix. Regardless, Richard and Mildred take the chance and are officially married by the State of Washington. Virginia isn’t too happy about this and arrests the couple shortly after their return home, detaining Richard overnight and the pregnant Mildred for the entire weekend. The couple plead guilty and are forced to leave Virginia. Should they return together over the next 25 years, they will be arrested and thrown in jail.

Grudgingly, Mildred and Richard leave Virginia for a new home in Washington. Cold, busy, grassless Washington. Richard is content to make a home there, finding construction work wherever they go. But Mildred, not so much. Loving is a quiet battle to present their case to the Supreme Court and allow the couple to return home. It’s a happy consequence that bringing this case into federal hands may rewrite the law entirely.

There are a fair amount of parallels in Loving, starting with the title itself. Not just a case for love conquering all, Loving is also Richard’s last name. The courts make a point to call Richard by his full name but always list Mildred under her maiden name; their marriage, after all, is not recognized by the State of Virginia. This cue is subtle but obvious. It’s intended to enrage us from our millennial perches, like a kick to your chair during a movie. It’s not right, but what are you going to do about it? Make some noise and irritate your neighbours? Stand up and make a scene while your family pretends not to know you? Tell the theatre authorities who will certainly roll their eyes at you? They have bigger fish to fry than your little battle.

The second parallel is Richard’s work. He is a fascinating character. For a man that rarely smiles and looks at his feet more often than a young Avril Lavigne, he is surprisingly tender and likeable. He spends every day laying cinderblocks for other houses. One by one he puts together strong, level foundations, and then goes home to his borrowed house or hideaway past the forest. Certain and unyielding at work, Richard fidgets at home, always waiting for someone to come along and knock down the life he’s desperately trying to hold together.

As nervous as Richard is, he somehow keeps Mildred in one piece. She rarely leaves the house, always worrying about her kids as they run out into the street, dodging traffic and playing baseball on the concrete. All Mildred wants is to raise her family on familiar terrain. Ruth Negga is a cinderblock herself, pushing this character through fear, love, hate, and hope in a series of tired but determined blinks. Mildred is soft where Richard is quietly firm, but she is also a fighter where he would rather hide. They complement each other perfectly and share the screen as equals.

Loving is slower than I expected from a story of this magnitude. Really, there’s hardly any time spent in court or even discussing the case; mostly we follow Mildred and Richard through a decade of worry and homesickness. Loving feels like a long hug in the cold. Tender but worrying, it’s a 7/10.

“I know we have some enemies, but we have some friends too.”

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