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Cannes review: Loving, Jeff Nichols’s period piece about interracial marriage, is eerily relevant today

The director has crafted a powerfully reserved civil rights drama that packs a political punch.

Loving stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and director Jeff Nichols.
Loving stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and director Jeff Nichols.
Clemens Bilan/Getty Images

CANNES, France — Compared with other monumental events in the history of the civil rights movement, it’s disheartening that the story of Richard and Mildred Loving isn't more well-known. That will change with the release of Jeff Nichols’s Loving, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on Monday.

After they got married in 1958, the Virginia couple was quickly arrested by a local sheriff for breaking the state's anti-miscegenation law, which banned marriages between people of different races. The Lovings eventually pleaded guilty to the charges as part of a deal with a county judge that allowed them to avoid jail time if they moved out of state and didn’t return.

Once settled in the safer confines of nearby Washington, DC, they didn’t feel safe moving back to Virginia until the ACLU took on their case. Eventually their battle reached the Supreme Court, which struck down Virginia’s law (Loving v. Virginia, 1967) in a ruling that was eventually cited numerous times in the court’s decision to legalize gay marriage almost a year ago.

The Lovings were also the subject of Nancy Buirski’s 2012 documentary The Loving Story, but now they get the big-screen treatment, with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga portraying Richard and Mildred respectively.

This is Nichols’s film film (after Shotgun StoriesTake Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special); its subject matter is also the most socially and politically relevant material he’s tackled to date. And, somewhat surprisingly, the usually mild-mannered filmmaker had a lot to say about that during Loving’s official Cannes press conference.

"It seemed to me the best way to get to the heart of all of this is to just talk about all these people," Nichols said. "I think when we talk about social [issues] like race and marriage equality we tend to just join our platform thinking. You're conservative. You're liberal. You go to your corners and we're going to spar based on these political ideas that are just ideas. They are not attached to anything specific."

He continued: "So we can talk about bathroom laws and all of this ridiculousness, because it's not attached to people, it's just these political ideas. And I think that's a waste of time. I think what people forget when they are so heated in their debates are the people at the center of these things. And when I looked at the story it seemed very, very obvious to me that we needed to just talk about the people."

Nichols also said he finds the legal elements of the Lovings’ story fascinating, noting that the ACLU bringing the case to the Supreme Court could be a movie in and of itself. But with that said, "I did not want to make a courtroom drama," he explained. "I wanted to make a movie about two people in love. "

Edgerton (in his second collaboration with Nichols after Midnight Special) portrays Richard as a quiet, working-class man who lives in constant fear of having the authorities destroy his family. It’s a powerfully reserved performance in a film that is atypical of most studio dramas. In truth, Loving is frustratingly silent and anger-less, but its subdued tone delivers a wealth of emotions in the film’s final minutes.

"It was very particularly un-Hollywood in the sense that [some filmmakers] may have rearranged the truth in order to make it more Hollywood: 'Let's have them high-five the children in the courtroom, having a party to celebrate themselves,'" Edgerton said at the press conference. "There was something just very simple about the truth that allowed us to have a really nice guideline to find our way into the story."

Negga, who also stars on FX’s forthcoming TV series Preacher, was the first actress to audition to play Mildred and simply wouldn’t let the role go.

"I met Jeff two years before we started filming, and even though I didn't know I got the part I lived with Mildred for two years and watched [Nancy Buirski's 2012 documentary] daily," Negga says. "It was like being with a friend for two years, and I fell deeply in love with Mildred and Richard and their story and just wanted to attempt to do them justice."

The Ethiopian-Irish actress had to laugh off a question asking whether she had already prepared her Oscar acceptance speech (as Nichols deadpanned, "Let’s just get through the press conference first"), and while it’s slightly early to even suggest such possibilities, be wary of dismissing them as film festival hyperbole. Negga is simply phenomenal as Mildred — though, as you might expect, she gives most of the credit to Nichols’s original screenplay and direction.

"The great thing about Jeff is that you just feel very free when you act for him. Because you just know he will finely calibrate everything, so you don't need to any of that. You can just get on with the material," Negga says "It's the best experience I've had working with a director."

Loving is a period piece that feels eerily relevant today

Historical period pieces are not necessarily the type of films Nichols gravitates toward, but he revealed that when he saw the trailer (yes, just the trailer) for Buirski’s doc, he couldn’t get the Lovings' story out of his head. He recalled, "I sent it to my wife and she wrote me an email back because I was traveling for work and she said, 'Listen, I really love you, but if you don't make this movie I'm going to divorce you.' That was it. I didn't tell the producers that in negotiations. I let them think I was playing hardball, but I was in from the beginning."

Robert Loving died seven years after the Supreme Court's ruling, and Mildred passed away in 2008, at the age of 68. Of the couple's three children, only Peggy Loving is still alive, and while she supported the project, Nichols said she was as shy and tight-lipped as her father had been known to be. He described the process of getting Peggy's sign-off as "terrifying."

"Ruth [Negga] and I had the pleasure of going to her house after she read the script and sitting there with her," Nichols said. "I couldn't tell if she liked it or not because she hadn't said anything. She began to cry because she said, 'They are all gone.' It immediately struck me that these people who I had taken control of to be able to write the script, these are her people."

When Loving finally hits American theaters in November, what will likely strike audiences the most is how relevant the Lovings' battle remains today.

Nichols admits that when development on the film first began four years ago, he thought the picture would help influence the Supreme Court’s debate over same-sex marriage. It ultimately didn’t need to, but that doesn’t mean renewed focus on the Lovings’ story can’t have a positive societal impact.

"[After the verdict came in] there was this idea that it was all going to be taken care of, and of course it's not," Nichols said. "You have religious liberty laws added and you soon realize that the Supreme Court can only do so much. The letter of the law sometimes gets it right. But it takes a long time for society to get it right, and that is what has always been surprising to me. We never got over that hurdle, and maybe we never will."

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Loving is director Jeff Nichols's fifth film, not his fourth.