Loving (2016)

Dir. Jeff Nichols. Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll

My humble definition of a biopic is “any movie which makes months, and preferably years, of a real human being’s life into its plot.” By my own definition, I would say that Loving qualifies as a biopic of Richard and Mildred Loving (Edgerton and Negga, respectively), since it makes their lives over the course of nearly a decade into its story. The movie begins in 1958 and ends not long after Loving v. Virginia was decided in 1967. It uses the beats of the Lovings’ lives as a way to advance the plot, and it comes to a conclusion when a pivotal chapter of their lives ends. We live in a moviegoing time when “respectable midlevel adult drama” is practically synonymous with “biopic,” and the genre is by now as formulaic as the ’90s romantic comedy. Event thrusts individual into position of responsibility, individual chafes under responsibility, perhaps even forcing him/her to briefly renounce the quest under the strain, but the protagonist ultimately sees that goal out to the happy/bitter end. Loving is guilty of some fidelity to this schematic. Even in exceptional recent films like Milk or Capote or The Aviator, this inclination to follow the formula is as strong as it was in films old enough to be their grandparents: Wilson, That Hamilton Woman, The Life of Emile Zola. 

The word on Loving is that it is “understated,” a word that’s even in the Rotten Tomatoes consensus. It’s true that Loving is an understated movie, and it’s also true that it shows us a way to reinterpret the biopic in such a way that there’s some hope for what’s become a basically moribund form. It belongs in the same category as Big Eyes, Jackie, and Marie Antoinette as biopics that have broken the mold, and it deserves attention as a new way to make this sort of a film.

Here’s a chart. It’s barely a chart, but I think that’s how you can tell I made it myself:

I went through all of the Oscar ceremonies from the 73rd to the 90th (movies from 2000 to movies from 2017), and I checked off if the winner in each acting category was performing a role in a biopic based on a single real person. You’ll notice that for that reason, I have omitted a few contenders. Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf in an adaptation of a novel; Jared Leto didn’t play a real person in Dallas Buyers Club; I wouldn’t call Bridge of Spies a biopic, and so I didn’t include Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in that film. At the 89th Academy Awards, no actor won for playing a person in a biopic, which was the first time that had happened since 1998. (Even then, though, Judi Dench won Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.) It’s well understood that at least one major contender for an acting award will play a real person from a story about a real person.

All this to say: we are nuts about biopics, or at least we are nuts about actors in biopics. Almost four out of every ten acting Oscars in this century have gone to people playing real people in “based on a true story” movies. Since the turn of the century, three biopics have won Best Picture (A Beautiful MindThe King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave), which puts the biopic well ahead of musicals, westerns, horror movies, sci-fi, the notorious movies about movies, and even other types of “based on a true story” historical dramas.

At the 74th Academy Awards, Jim Broadbent won Best Supporting Actor for playing a character we’d identify as the significant other of the biopic’s focus, that is, Iris Murdoch of Iris. You have to go back to the 50th Academy Awards, when Jason Robards played Dashiell Hammett in Julia, to find another Best Supporting Actor who fits that qualification. But since 73rd Academy Awards, there have been four Supporting Actresses who do: Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. This is a newish trend! Of the 20th Century Best Supporting Actresses, many may have been spouses or girlfriends, but they were overwhelmingly fictional ones. Add in mothers of the people the biopic is actually about, and that accounts for another two winners. To the best of my knowledge, no man has ever won Best Supporting Actor for playing the father of a woman in a biopic about her.

What this has to do with Loving is that the film is extremely even-handed with its two leads. Although I’d guess that Edgerton’s Richard shows up on screen more, the film sees him as Mildred’s husband as much as it understands him in any other role. Although Mildred does not matter more in the way that Lillian Hellman matters more in Julia or Iris Murdoch does in Iris, she is the one who moves the film. She wants to return to Virginia to have her first child; she is the one who writes the letter which gets the ACLU interested in her case; she gracefully accedes to the publicity which comes with suing the state of Virginia en route to the Supreme Court. Richard follows, because Richard is obviously crazy about her unlike the way he is only interested in cars or focused on construction work. Nichols emphasizes the famous photograph of Richard lying down on the couch, head on Mildred’s lap, because it is a moment of profound vulnerability rarely given to men in cinema. Not only is he physically prone, but it is a submissive posture as well. His laughter, almost entirely absent from the rest of the film, resounds in that little room. (They’re watching Andy Griffith, who is just sweet as pie, and whose television program was blissfully unconcerned with race in the South.) It’s an absolutely lovely scene. Nichols shows the photo of the real Richard and Mildred at the end of the movie, and the meaning is clear: this may follow both, but this is Mildred’s story, and Mildred’s cause primarily. When Edgerton was nominated for Best Actor at the 89th Academy Awards (but Negga, somehow, was not), he was one of the rare men to earn that nod because he was playing the husband of a leading woman in a biopic first and foremost. Where she goes, he follows, needing only a few sentences to right his course when it requires righting, as when he objects to the interviews Mildred gives curious reporters. This is not weakness, nor is it presented that way; it is change in perspective necessary for a man whose perspective on racism cannot be as full or nuanced as Mildred’s is. Richard’s perspective is an honest and naive civil libertarianism; we aren’t hurting anyone, so why can’t they leave us alone? He hopes that the matter can be settled with some backroom lawyer-to-judge conversation. Mildred’s perspective, the worldlier and wiser one, is that it will take the movement of heaven, earth, and the federal government before they can be left alone.

Jeff Nichols loves to show men building. In Shotgun Stories, an Arkansas tractor is tinkered with endlessly before finally kicking up some promising smoke at the end of the picture; in Take Shelter, a man living in rural northern Ohio makes an underground shelter for his wife and daughter; in Mud, a man living on a small island on the Mississippi convinces two boys to ferry him what he needs to remove a boat from a tree and make it seaworthy again. In all three cases, the projects are completed. In Loving, Nichols returns to construction again. Richard Loving reaches into a wheelbarrow full of mortar with his spade, picks some up, swipes it on the top of the cinder block, rotates it with his wrist, and glues it next to the previously standing block. It’s a process we see several times in the film, and each time Loving is basically absent from the shot. We’ll see it’s him when his face comes into it, peering to see that there isn’t excess mortar squeezing out, or lining up his latest cinder block with the last, but most of these shots take place without a man to anchor our gaze on; it’s clear that the building itself, the bare skeleton of it, is the focus. And meaningfully, we never see him finish any of this masonry work. It only ever comes up to his knees, at best, and the first and last time we watch him do this it never gets higher than his shins. The symbolism is visible a mile away, probably the most in-your-face aspect of the entire film; clearly, Loving v. Virginia is only a small piece of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the mission of that era left much to the present to accomplish. But at the end of the movie, Richard is with his family again, on the plot of land he bought years ago, building the house he promised Mildred he would build. Their fingerprints are on the cinder blocks.

Loving uses repeated scenes like those as a way to efface the needier dramatic impulses most biopics give in to. In your average Loving, the movie would show us the Supreme Court’s decision come down with Richard and Mildred and their children in the room, crying and hugging and kissing and cheering, hats flying, flashbulbs shining. Loving instead keeps the Lovings out of the Supreme Court, despite the pleas of their lawyer (Kroll), and gives us the decision at the Loving home over the telephone. Only Mildred hears it, and she receives the news calmly. First of all, we must applaud any film which does not take a paint-by-numbers approach to feeling; the emotions of the viewer must be earned, and grabs for that emotion only serve to make the viewer spitefully disinclined to feel that way. (One is reminded of that scene in Amadeus where Salieri tells Mozart that he doesn’t even leave the Viennese with a big finish so they know when to clap; mainstream American cinema so often feels like a constant signifier for applause.) But more importantly, Richard and Mildred are not cheerers. They are not kissers. They are not sobbers. They are stoic, sturdy people with reactions to match, and the film does not plaster on some emotional appendage which would ruin our appreciation of the characters. A good biopic should find a way to align its structure with the life of its protagonist. Jackie (and even Milk, which would be a fairly typical entry if not for its quality) recognizes that the life of the onetime First Lady was understood retrospectively from November 22, 1963 on; it uses an unnamed reporter’s interview with Jackie to tell the story. Marie Antoinette understood its central character as the privileged, candy-coated precursor to the ritzy daughters of Manhattan and Brentwood, and so it rejoices in anachronisms—pop songs, a bitchy lipstick color for “Let them eat cake”—which make the story more relatable to our time. And Loving sees that its characters are not easily ruffled, and so the film itself stands as stolid and sure as Richard’s masonry.

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