Cannes: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’ stirs a festival, and enters Hollywood’s diversity debate in the process
At the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, those critics were given an answer. Premiering at the world’s most prestigious cinema gathering was “Loving,” a fact-based drama, from the Arkansas-raised auteur Jeff Nichols, about an interracial romance deemed illicit in Virginia circa 1958.
Impeccably made and drawn closely from historical research, the film tells the relatively little-known story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a couple whose case, which eventually went to the Supreme Court, both exposed the racial divides of the time and helped bridge them.
But as with so many films that touch on diversity, the movie has also just as quickly drawn skepticism, in this case for not being sufficiently hard-hitting about the racism of the era.
Nichols has sought to keep a distance from the fray, saying he was simply looking to tell an intimate tale of a couple that overcame obstacles, not a larger social history.
“You look at this film from a distance and there are so many pitfalls for melodrama or histrionics,” the writer-director said in an interview with The Times. “But then you start to look at these people and they’re not melodramatic.”
He added, “The big decision wasn’t ‘Let me move away from any cliche.’ It was ‘Let me confine myself to these people and see where that takes us.’ And where it takes us is a very restrained film.”
“Loving” follows the decade-long period in which the white Richard (the Australian actor-filmmaker Joel Edgerton) and black Mildred (the Ethiopian Irish actress Ruth Negga) first cultivate a romance, then marry, before they are arrested and prosecuted under a Virginia miscegenation statute. A judge sentences them to five years in prison, but agrees to suspend the sentence if they plead guilty and agree to leave the state for 25 years, which they do.
The couple then spends years in Washington, D.C., away from their families, before moving home (now with three young children) and eventually seeking validation via a legal case that reached the Supreme Court.
“Loving” maintains a cool tone. Pain is carved on the couple’s faces, but there are few violent outbursts from either character, and the ache of exile, while clearly great, is played with restraint. The lack of emotional fireworks is accompanied by a lack of legal fireworks. The case, a cause célèbre for a surging ACLU, is glimpsed only sporadically, during the times they come in direct contact with it. (The couple did not attend the Supreme Court hearing, for instance.)
Financed by the U.S. production entity Big Beach and distributed by Focus Features, “Loving” will arrive in theaters in November, when it will almost certainly attract interest across all awards categories, including for Negga’s simmering performance.
Nichols, who in the past has mostly developed his own fictional material, was motivated to make this tale because of the 2011 HBO documentary “The Loving Story.” At his representatives’ suggestion he watched the TV film and found himself moved, especially by a moment in which Richard’s intense desire to take care of Mildred was described. He said it made him decide to eschew a courtroom or social drama in favor of a love story.
Nichols also received a gentle ultimatum from his wife: “I really love you, but if you don’t make this movie I’m going to divorce you,” is how he recalled how she put it to him. The director had the blessing, he said, of the Lovings’ sole surviving child. (They and two other children are no longer alive.)
Nichols was on on the restaurant patio of a hotel here on Tuesday morning, just hours after “Loving” premiered at a tuxedoed gala given to the festival’s elite 20 or so competition films. “Loving” was already a triumph by production standards — Nichols and his crew had re-created a distant time and rural place, and right after finishing “Midnight Special,” the director’s very differently oriented sci-fi film that arrived in theaters just eight weeks ago.
And while at 37 he now has five films on his résumé (which also includes 2011’s “Take Shelter” and 2012’s “Mud”), Nichols maintains a youthful enthusiasm, which comes in handy when weathering the storms of debate that can surround Cannes premieres. And there has been no shortage of it with this film.
Around the restaurant tables and in the screening rooms of the festival over the last two days, “Loving” has become a major talking point. On one side are the movie’s critics, who say that “Loving” does not sufficiently represent the ambient hatred an interracial couple would experience at the time in the South. On the other side are the movie’s champions, who say the movie world is long overdue a film free of ginned-up melodrama.
“I saw that disconnect coming,” Nichols said. “People saying ‘This isn’t violent enough’ or ‘This isn’t aggressive enough.’
“But the Lovings’ threat,” he continued, “is a psychological one. It’s people having to live in that state of tension. Nothing comes out of the woods and no crosses are burned here because nothing like that happened to them in real life.”
Nichols added, in his characteristic mix of thoughtfulness and candor, “My patience for this particular critique is limited.”
“Loving” is likely to further attract scrutiny because it chooses as its vehicle a story in which the effects on racism are felt heavily by a white person and is also told by same. The point may be underscored because the movie will come out in the same season as the Nat Turner tale “The Birth of a Nation,” another race-themed movie hailed as an awards contender.
Even critics of the movie will admit that the film addresses topical issues, whether it’s institutional forms of racism, the quiet pain of otherness or issues far removed from skin color, such as the transgender bathroom controversy, a modern echo of the same cultural argument.
And even skeptics might cheer Nichols’ decision to avoid schmaltzy Hollywood moments. Victory, for instance, comes not with courtroom high-fives but in more subtle ways, such as the repeating motif of Richard’s job as a bricklayer, suggesting the laying of groundwork for future generations.
This resonance is partly because of the performances. Edgerton, stretching himself as the director and creepy star of last summer’s sleeper hit “The Gift,” shapeshifts into a stoic mid-century male of a certain type in this film. Negga, in her early 30s, will be a revelation to U.S. audiences (at least before she appears, later this year, in the high-profile genre pieces “Preacher” on AMC and the “Warcraft” film adaptation).
Negga lauded Nichols’ minimalism when speaking to reporters Monday. “Jeff’s screenplay is so lean there was nothing to add or take away,” she said. “The great thing about Jeff is you feel very free when you act for him because you know he will finely calibrate everything so you don’t need to do any of that.”
Those who ask what happened to the emotional pyrotechnics probably have not seen Nichols’ earlier work. The director has developed a reputation as one of the shining lights of a new U.S. cinema precisely because he’s taken low-key approaches where others wouldn’t. (Ironically, his “Mud” created a Cannes stir with film critics who said the movie’s ending was too explosive and melodramatic.)
“I hope this is the quiet film of the year,” he said Monday when speaking to reporters. “I hope it makes people think about what’s at the heart of these issues. I hope it makes people remember there are people at the center of these debates. Because you can sit in your armchair at home and espouse all these opinions but they actually affect people. That is all we want to do.”
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