It’s been a busy year for Jeff Nichols. His Midnight Special received its premiere in Berlin back in February and now his fourth feature, Loving, arrives at Cannes. Playing in competition, it should confirm Nichols’ reputation as a mature filmmaker of great tact and intelligence. Richard Loving (an immense Joel Edgerton) is a hardworking builder, complete with a few buzz-cut blonde hairs and even fewer words. He likes to tinker with engines in his spare time, turning up cars to compete in local drag races. And he’s good at it. He also has a girlfriend, Mildred (or “Bean” to her friends, played by Ruth Negga), and when she timorously tells him she’s pregnant he proposes they go to Washington DC to be wed.
Of course, they can’t get married in their own state of Virginia because he’s white, she’s black and it’s 1958. If Richard believed he would get away with flouting the Miscegenation Laws because they were living in the sticks, he was naïve. Perhaps betrayed by close family – his mother looks askance at the marriage and Mildred’s sister is also concerned – or just the silent majority of bigots around them, the sheriff (Marton Csokas) and his deputies break down their doors in the middle of the night and drag him and his pregnant wife off to the cells. With the help of local lawyer Frank Beazley (Bill Camp) they accept a plea bargain, copping to the crime but receiving only a suspended prison sentence on the understanding that they’ll either divorce or leave the state, not to return together for twenty five years. Their extended families, the plot of land they bought to build a house – all of this will be sacrificed if they insist on staying together.
Richard and Mildred eventually pack up and head to DC. The move helps their legal situation but the baby is due and they risk a tense nocturnal return to the state in order to have Richard’s mother deliver the baby. Once more they’re in trouble and it becomes apparent that the next time they try, they will end up in prison without bail. This ‘true story’ was ripe for TV movie treatment but thankfully Nichols takes his cue from his characters and uses their virtues as his guiding light. The couple’s love is evident in their persistence, small gestures of easy affection and, as their family grows, domestic contentment. Richard is seen as naïve but his naiveté is radical in its simplicity. Early on he states his justification and expresses the absolute injustice of all marriage inequality: “We aren’t hurting anyone.” When asked by his lawyers if he’d like them to communicate something to the judge he answers, “I love my wife. I love my children.” In doing so he also makes redundant the impassioned courtroom oratory an inferior work might have indulged in.
There are also no Klan visits, nor a baying mob, and yet there is a persistent tension of imminent danger. Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone insist on the tactile reality of the couple’s life: the bricks and cement, the engine oil and food, the grass and the land. As the story continues, it is Mildred who increasingly becomes the focus of the film: the dropping of her “Bean” nickname immediate evidence of this. She takes controls, dealing with the inexperienced lawyers hired by the ACLU to pursue their case. It’s she who decides – following an accident on the street – to move the family back to Virginia and risk prison once more. She agrees to Life photographer Grey Villet (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) visiting the house. Comparisons are of course odious and the historic realities of the present day marriage equality struggle are of course different. Yet Loving is a timely reminder of the way in which two people, in the word of Gandhi, becoming the change they wanted the world to be, managed to change that world.
The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.