Loving quickly became a forgotten film. Initially it was pegged to receive Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture, and possibly, Best Director. Instead, only Ruth Negga claimed a nomination for Best Actress. So, why did it fade so quickly?
Loving is the inspiring story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in Virginia. Their lives are set in a progressive neighborhood, where blacks and whites routinely mix together, though never in marriage. The Lovings’ head to Washington D.C. to be married, and return home. However, the relative racial calm in their community is disrupted because of an anonymous tip. So, who was the kid who snitched? We never find out (a possible flaw).
I say a possible flaw because, to a point, it makes sense to say that racism could come from anywhere, even from Richard Loving’s mother, who tells him that he “should’ve known better.” And though, Jeff Nichols wanted to remain close to the Lovings’ story, there is little conflict in the film.
Other than a racist sheriff who appears in the first 30 minutes, then disappears, there are few dramatic moments. Much of the racism occurs in an anonymous form, like Edgerton finding a brick in his car, or a car that follows Edgerton home, or their inability to live in Virginia, yet a considerable amount of the vitriol occurs off stage (It’s like watching Titanic, and not seeing it sink).
For a film about a landmark court case (Loving v. Virginia), little of the film happens in a courtroom. It is understandable for Nichols to focus on how the Lovings deal with the pressure of their situation, yet it doesn’t make for the best drama. And maybe watching the Lovings struggle with racism should be dramatic enough, but it doesn’t suffice. Of the 123 minutes, maybe 14 are set in a courtroom (It’s like watching Shawshank Redemption without a prison break #spoilers).
Nichols does well to have the motif of doors and windows. Nearly every shot is someone standing behind a door, closing a door, or looking out a window. Both objects create natural barriers. In a world where race is the ultimate barrier, the motif entrenches the glass case the Lovings live in.
Edgerton missed out on an Oscar nomination, though he had been a favorite for months. The reason can probably be found in his understated performance. The character of Richard Loving doesn’t allow Edgerton to have the great dramatics that Denzel Washington might have had in Fences or Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. His lines are few, his large moments, fewer. It’s not the fault of Edgerton. Richard Loving was just a quiet guy in real life. Unfortunately, Edgerton was hurt by his character.
Negga seemed to barely scrap an Oscar nomination. Amy Adams (Arrival), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloan), and Anette Bening (20th Century Women) were left on the outside looking in. While Mildred is also an understated character, the film essentially revolves around her. Negga is given far more opportunities to have dramatic moments. Her skill, is remaining reserved in those moments (Much like Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies). Negga receiving the call from Cohen and Hirschkop, her lawyers, detailing that they have won the case, is the high point of the film. Her understated reaction. The half smile. The quiet excitement. The relief. Is probably the reason she held-on to her nomination.
If you’re a diehard Michael Shannon fan, then his little turn as a Life magazine photographer is a small treat. But Loving fell off the pace, partly because it lacked the large dramatics that Academy voters tend to latch onto. Its most impactful moments, are small, yet penetrating. Nichols does the best with his material, but sometimes…a little Hollywood trickery is needed to add some extra drama to a film. If you don’t believe me, then look at Bridge of Spies….
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