It’s impossible to ignore the year 2016 when talking about Loving, a film that takes place between 1958 and 1967 and depicts the lives of the titular couple at the center of one of the Supreme Court’s landmark cases of the 20th century. So let’s talk about 2016.
Movie-wise, the year began with the “Oscars So White” controversy, which highlighted the unfortunate fact that none of the major nominees in acting categories were people of color. “Oscars So White” highlighted a very real problem that is only partially the fault of the voting body of the Academy. There were, of course, some terrific kudos-worthy performances from non-Caucasian actors including Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, and Mya Taylor in Tangerine, but the reason these performances weren’t nominated has at least as much to do with star power, awards campaign budgets, and genre as it does with race, if not more. The truth is, very few Oscar-caliber films from 2015 had racially diverse casts that could even be nominated. The Academy has shown, most notably of late with 12 Years A Slave, that it will heap honors upon a more diverse film when it comes along, as long as it’s of a certain quality. That shouldn’t necessarily “excuse” the voting body for a lily-white year like 2015, but it does show that the problem has many more shades than “all those old white dudes are racist.” To nominate a more diverse slate of films for the Oscars, the Academy will have to make them first.
Then the 2016 Sundance Film Festival offered a (too) early beacon of hope in Nate Parker’s audaciously titled The Birth Of A Nation, which made headlines for the largest sale in the festival’s history, and was only half-jokingly declared the Best Picture winner 0f 2017 a whole year before the ceremony. The Birth Of A Nation was released in October with a thud, due largely to old rape allegations against the filmmaker that resurfaced with a vengeance.
What happened between January and October, you ask?
Well, 2016 happened.
Looking back at it now, the “Oscars So White” backlash feels quaint compared to the controversies that plagued the rest of this year, most of them brought from a simmer to a boil by the presidential campaign of one Donald J. Trump. This isn’t the place to rehash the year’s many traumas, but it’s hard to set the scene for a film about the Loving v. Virginia case without examining the environment in which it’s being released.
On the one hand, the Loving case was decided so long ago that it’s jarring to remember that interracial marriage was illegal in some states just 50 years ago. On the other hand, we’ve made shockingly little progress in these past 50 years if someone like Donald Trump is embraced as the mouthpiece of a disturbingly large segment of this country. In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested and jailed in their home state of Virginia for the crime of being married. (The license was granted by Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was already legal.) The Lovings were ordered to leave the state with the understanding that if they returned together at any point over the next 25 years, they would be imprisoned. If Loving had been released just a couple years earlier, say, in 2014, we would have been able to distance ourselves and say, “Well, it’s a good thing our country’s not like that anymore!” But in 2016, thanks largely to the Republican party’s rollercoaster endorsement of Donald Trump, a straight white rich man with the audacity to suggest that the system is rigged against him, I’m afraid we have to grapple with Loving in a very different way.
Loving stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the Lovings, an American couple with the simplest of ambitions: Richard wants to provide for his family, Mildred wants to raise it. They both want to do this in the Virginia community they were raised in, where their families still reside; where they are happy. Most people, black and white, are openly accepting of the interracial relationship, though some are reluctant about the way Richard pushes the boundaries of the law by making the union official. The local law enforcement makes a show of arresting the couple more than once, making it clear that their marriage won’t be honored or welcomed by the state of Virginia. Richard and Mildred are forced to move to Washington, D.C., where they raise three children until they are contacted by Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer from the ACLU who wants to represent them in a case he hopes will be taken all the way to the Supreme Court, believing the illegality of interracial unions can be repealed across the nation.
There’s little suspense in whether or not the Lovings’ series of appeals ends in success for interracial couples in America — 2016 audiences should be well aware of the results of Loving v. Virginia, even if they don’t know the case by name. (This film may change that.) Loving spends relatively little time on the court proceedings, instead focusing the bulk of its time on the loving between the Lovings themselves, and that’s a good choice. The film is directed by Jeff Nichols, who has built his career on humane dramas about the American heartland. Nichols released Midnight Special earlier this year, which failed to blend the spectacular and the mundane quite as shrewdly as Take Shelter did, but Loving shows the filmmaker bouncing back with some of his finest work to date. Both lead performances are extraordinary (my early favorites of 2016, actually), with Negga and Edgerton matching the subtlety of the script with quiet but powerful command of these characters. (Despite the grand themes, there’s really no showiness in this story.) It’s too early to say for sure, but I expect both of them to be nominated for Oscars for Loving.
I don’t want to hijack Loving‘s central focus on racial issues at a time when that is so crucial, but it is worth noting that the Loving case was instrumental in more recent marriage equality rulings regarding same-sex couples. That’s definitely a part of this film’s subtext. Some of the same people who leave the film wondering how America could ever have been so backwards to not allow interracial marriage might also fail to support marriage equality of a different form. It’s just another way in which Loving isn’t just another film about a relic injustice that shakes its head at previous generations; it is unfortunately resonant in 2016, inviting us to continue shaking our heads until this sort of prejudice is really, truly gone.
I mentioned the stillborn Birth Of A Nation earlier, a film that had the misfortune of being released in Donald Trump’s America. (A period that will, God willing, span only 2016, rather than another four years.) Parker’s failure to quell the bad buzz about his past might have happened in any year, but the fall of 2016 was a particularly bad time to be a man accused of “getting away” with sexual assault, and an even worse time to be unapologetic about it. Many critics also struggled with The Birth Of A Nation‘s historical inaccuracies, in addition to the role of women in the film itself. (Disclaimer: I neglected to see the film myself.) Perhaps it’s unfortunate that The Birth Of A Nation isn’t a more widely seen and widely talked about film, but 2016 has been such a feel-bad year, I suspect Academy voters will be more likely to nominate and award films that have a more positive vibe to them.
The Birth Of A Nation may have sputtered, but that’s not the end of the story to make the Oscars Less White next year. Fortunately, in 2016, we’ve got more than just one black beauty in the race. Loving could do very well when nominations are announced this winter, and better yet, it isn’t the only film carrying the torch for black Americans in the coming awards season. Even without the Academy’s efforts to diversify this year, it’s impossible to imagine that the 2017 Oscar lineup won’t be significantly more colorful than 2016’s. It’s been one hell of a year, yes — but come January, I do believe a number of good things will happen.
Titled after the almost-too-perfectly named couple who dared to challenge the system, Nichols’ film is a celebration of love and equality and progress, coming at a dark and dangerous moment in history when all of those things are at risk. Loving is the perfect film to remind America that we’ve come a long way, baby — released at just the right moment to prove we’ve got a long way yet to go.