Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
An obvious frontrunner for all the awards, Loving is Jeff Nichols’ entry to the big time. His most accessible film doesn’t compromise the restraint that elevated his previous features—Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud—above their indie peers. In Loving, he tackles a true story—the Supreme Court decision that broke the back of racist, anti-miscegenation laws—that could have been turned into a drippingly sappy inspirational flick in lesser directorial hands. Instead, Loving is all genuine emotion; no faux-sentimentality weakens the very relevant history lesson about how America corrected an egregious prejudice regarding civil rights and the legality of marriage. In a post-Obergefell, pre-Trump world, this precedent needs to be embraced, not forgotten.
In 1958, a white construction worker, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), married his pregnant, black girlfriend, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga, Tulip on AMC’s “Preacher”). An anonymous tip leads to their arrest and subsequent probation, which banishes them for 25 years from their home state of Virginia and, in essence, their families. After several years in Washington, DC, the couple’s plight eventually comes to the attention of the ACLU by way of Bobby Kennedy, who assigns an attorney, Bernie Cohen (comedian Nick Kroll, who acquits himself well when he does not look like he is about to explode from holding in a crazy character), in the hopes the case will go all the way to the Supreme Court, as Bernie mentions over and over. As history tells us, the case is taken up by the Warren Court, which makes the constitutionally correct decision.
Inspired by the documentary The Loving Story, Nichols’ deliberate style ensures that the story of Richard and Mildred Loving never falls victim to the self-aggrandizing hagiographic trap that so easily captures most filmmakers. It is easy to saint the Lovings while concurrently demonizing the evil Southerners who harass them. Make no mistake: Marton Csokas’ sheriff is appropriately mean while upholding this racist law. But the film focuses on the love, not the hate, without tainting the love with artifice. Deceptively simple performances from Edgerton and Negga, who should be on every awards committee’s shortlist, anchor a film more focused on emoting quietly rather than carrying a big, tear-jerking stick with which to bludgeon viewers. Loving is my pick for 2016’s top film, until some contender like La La Land dethrones it.