It’s a pleasure to see Jeff Nichols back on the screens so soon after Midnight Special, this time with the thoughtful, delicate beauty of a love story. It’s mid-February and I already know Loving is likely to make it on my best films of 2017 list (I know US folks saw it months ago, but it came out in France just yesterday).
As residents of the state of Virginia, Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, were forbidden from marrying by racist laws. Instead they were married in the District of Columbia in the spring of 1958. The judge gave them a choice best summarized as “prison or exile”. Heavy-hearted at the prospect of having to abandon their families, they chose exile.
Nichols could have made his film more “political” or “engaged” by focusing on the contemporary political context and the court battles that opposed the Loving couple against the state of Virginia “all the way up to the Supreme court!” But Richard and Mildred were not political people. Mildred sees the civil rights protests on the television, and hear the marchers chant from afar. They live close enough to the Mall that she can hear the songs floating over the rooftops and could soon join the crowds, but she has three children to tend to, and a husband who toils until late at night and on the weekends to provide for them all.
Yet this singular focus on the life of the couple is what lends the film its power, the quiet strength of a wheel slowly turning. When their case reaches the Supreme Court, Richard refuses to go. The lawyers will do just fine without him, and he prefers to avoid the publicity. Mildred won’t go without him. They have their disagreements, but they are an indivisible unit. When asked what he’d like to tell the judges of the Supreme Court, Richard has only these words: “tell the judge I love my wife”. With that, the outcome of the court’s deliberations seems an inevitability. Loving will prevail.