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Jeff Nichols’s ‘Loving’ Is a Subtle Retelling of Relevant Recent History

The Texas filmmaker levels up on his fifth feature, ’Loving,’ which tells the story of an interracial couple trying to get married in the fifties.

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Austin Film Fest 2016. Photo by Jack Plunkett.

Jeff Nichols got his start at the Austin Film Festival. His 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories, took home the Jury Award that year. As he introduced his latest feature, Loving, as the festival’s opening night film on Thursday, Nichols reminded audiences that he made his debut for a mere $50,000. It sure seemed like a homecoming for Nichols, whose four previous films showcased him as a Texas talent to watchShotgun Stories and Take Shelter helped establish Michael Shannon as one of our finest character actors; Mud ignited the McConnaissance and introduced the world to young Tye Sheridan, who went on to claim lead roles in X-Men: Apocalypse and Stephen Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One. (His Midnight Special, which was released just six months ago, was less impactful.)

But one thing that Nichols said before the screening of Loving rang especially true: “I’m proud of all of my movies,” he told the audience at Austin’s Paramount Theater, “But this one, I think, is important.”

That’s true, especially given the cultural climate in which it exists. It’s a historical film, based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose 1959 conviction for interracial marriage, led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which found anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. That case became famous once more last year after the high court cited it in Obergefell v. Hodges, which overturned bans on same-sex marriage. And a movie that examines the racism of the recent past—1967 is well within the memory of a lot of Americans—is extremely relevant at a time when the attitudes that led to the Lovings’ court case seem to be getting a second wind.

The film stars Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving and Ruth Negga as Mildred, along with Nick Kroll as attorney Bernard Cohen, who represented the couple in the case. Edgerton, who’s fond of playing roles that let him show off his ability as a chameleon, plays the taciturn, sweet Loving with a thick drawl—but it’s Negga who carries the film, portraying Mildred’s evolution from kindhearted naif to important civil rights figure with poise and subtlety.

Subtlety is key to Loving. When Kroll—the zany comedian known for The Kroll Show and for playing obnoxious characters on shows such as The League and Parks & Recreation—turned up in trailers for the Oscar-bait drama, people were surprised. But Kroll is a limited presence in Loving, because Nichols as a filmmaker is uninterested in big climaxes or obvious emotional cues. A different version of the film would have centered on Kroll’s character, and it would have worked hard to contextualize the Lovings within the civil rights struggle of the sixties. But Nichols’ version of the story is very much about the family, and he eschews the obvious sources of drama and conflict in favor of making clear that these are two people who love each other, and who mostly just want to be left alone to raise their kids and treat each other kindly.

It’s a clever approach to the material, but also a risky one. It’s satisfying to see big speeches and bold stands, and to have the racism of the past presented in ways that highlight how far we’ve come. But Nichols gets into the Lovings’ heads enough to recognize that, though they posed for photos for Life magazine (Michael Shannon appears in a brief, charming cameo as the photographer) and Mildred gave her share of interviews, the drama in the courtroom was rather disconnected from their day-to-day lives. There are plenty of films about civil rights heroes who are filled with purpose as they stand up for what they know is right. Loving, on the other hand, portrays the entire affair as an inconvenience that distracts the couple from quotidian activities like feeling safe, spending time with their friends and families, and enjoying their favorite television shows together.

The payoffs of that approach are subtle, but they’re definitely there. If Nichols had Kroll give a dramatic speech about how unfair the laws of Virginia (and the dozen-plus other states that had similar laws on the books) were to the Lovings, we might be stirred by his words. But by instead showing all of the very small ways that their basic rights, freedoms, dignity, and time were stolen from the Lovings, we experience a fraction of what these laws meant to them. Ongoing court battles have dramatic moments, but they’re mostly tedious. Nichols, in large part thanks to the performances of Negga and Edgerton, finds a way to make that relatively cinematic.

Films about historical racism are a mixed bag when it comes to critical reception. Twelve Years A Slave won the Oscar, while Selma was snubbed. This year’s Matthew McConaughey-led Free State of Jones, which attempted to draw a very straight line between the racism of the Civil War era to the institutional, government-sanctioned racism that persisted right up until Loving V. Virginia (which it did effectively, perhaps to the exclusion of doing anything else effectively), was panned by critics and bombed at the box office. Loving, because of Nichols’ subtle touch, could see similar results from audiences that like their civil rights struggles flashy and accompanied with a reassuring pat on the back.

But it might not. It’s an important story, and the controversy around Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation means that, as Hollywood considers if they’re going to honor a film that addresses America’s history of racism (a slot the Academy only ever seems to consider for one film at a time), Loving might get some attention. Nichols would surely be chuffed if that happened, but during the screening at the Paramount, he made clear that Loving is really not about him at all. He was approached to make the film—Martin Scorsese produced it—and he came into the project determined to make sure that viewers understood just how recent and important all of this history really is.

“I didn’t know this story when they first approached me about making the film,” Nichols told the crowd. “And that’s shameful.” We’ll see if that shame lifts when it hits theaters on November 4.

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