My third and final event of the day and of the New Yorker Festival was a screening of Jeff Nichols’ Loving at the MasterCard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 on 23rd Street. After the screening, Nichols would be interviewed by Hilton Als. The movie is scheduled for release in November.
This time I decided to take the subway down from 57th Street. I was thinking I’d have to walk over to the east side from Sixth Avenue because I thought the event was at the Gramercy Theater. It’s a good thing I double-checked the ticket and realized I only had to walk one block west instead. On the subway platform were women in costumes from that day’s parade. They had on gold crowns and their heads were surrounded by glitter and pearl pieces in a floral pattern. They were wearing embroidered blouses and skirts. I didn’t know what country they were representing but they were speaking Spanish and based on the date I’m guessing it was the Columbus Hispanic Day parade where they had performed. The strange Einstein-haired man that I mentioned before was also on the platform and was quizzing the women.
I was aware of Jeff Nichols because his brother’s band is Lucero. If you know me, then you know my love for this band. Ben has contributed music to (I think) all of his brother’s films. I thought I had heard Ben play his song “Loving” in a recent show but it looks like it’s “Shelter” (from Take Shelter) that I’m remembering. “Loving” played over the end credits and it’s beautiful. And a Ha! to all those people who always run out before the credits end. This time they had to sit through the credits in order to listen to the interview and/or ask questions. Surprisingly, several people did leave before the credits ended. Why pay $45 to see a movie?
Most of the best seats were taken by the time I got to the theater but I had MasterCard preferred seating and there was a seat available in the center. Als came out to introduce the film and say that he cried when he saw it. He first saw the movie in August and, with some scrambling, they were able to add the movie to the Festival schedule.
Loving is the story of the interracial couple behind the Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. It’s a quiet film but it’s powerful. It always follows the couple – it never becomes a courtroom drama. These are ordinary people in love. Mildred drives the bus when it comes to getting a lawyer, going to court, and using publicity to bring people to their side with Richard reluctantly following. He just wants to take care of her. But she remains hopeful and calm through all the proceedings. The movie immediately puts you in the middle of their lives and the time and place. It’s 1958 in Central Point, Virginia. Central Point is a very small town and Mildred hesitantly tells Richard that she’s pregnant. He breaks out in a huge smile. They get married in Washington, DC since it is against the law for them to be married in Virginia. They don’t hide their relationship but they don’t advertise it either. Someone tells the police and their bedroom door is busted down and the two are arrested. To avoid significant jail time they agree to leave the state and not return for 25 years. They return in the cover of night so Richard’s mother, a midwife, can deliver their first child. They are caught and their lawyer saves them from jail as long as they promise never to return. They have two more children in DC and Mildred misses her family and living in the country. At the suggestion of a relative, she writes a letter to US Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964. Eventually she hears from a lawyer. Kennedy has passed her letter along to the ACLU. The ACLU lawyer is inexperienced but believes he can take this case to the US Supreme Court. He just doesn’t know how. Eventually he reaches out (after Mildred has prodded him because she hasn’t heard from him for a long time) to other lawyers who can help. After one of their sons is hit by a car, Mildred insists they move back to the country. Eventually they find a remote farmhouse in Virginia, where they live in constant fear of being found out. At the lawyer’s suggestion, a Life photographer comes out to do a story on them. After the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upholds the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation laws, Mildred tells the press that she is hopeful. Now they can go to the US Supreme Court. They also tell the press that they’re going back to their home in DC. The fact that they are living in Virginia is still a secret. The final decision does not come down until 1967.
Sometimes I find it unbelievable that this entire story happened in my lifetime. It’s amazing to look at a map and see how many states did not repeal their anti-miscegenation laws until after 1967.
I cried at some scenes and I cried the most at the end. Bring Kleenex if you go see this film. I usually have difficulty understanding accents and I did have difficulty with some of the dialogue in the movie.
One of the best things Nichols did was to cast actors (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) who look like regular people. There are no Hollywood stars mucking up the works. If you’re wondering what role Michael Shannon plays (he’s in every Nichols film), he is the photographer. Everything feels true in the film – the dialogue, the love, the fear, and the trust. The leads are quiet and dignified.
The first thing I noticed is that Nichols does not have an accent. At least nothing like his brother Ben’s. You may hear a slight accent on certain words. He also looks nothing like Ben but is also a good-looking man.
Nancy Buirski, who had made the HBO documentary The Loving Story, approached Nichols about making a movie about the Lovings’ story. Nichols hadn’t seen the documentary, so he watched it and decided to write and direct the movie. Nichols is from Little Rock. In fact, he had attended Little Rock Central High School. But he did not know the story of Loving v. Virginia and he doesn’t know why it’s not taught in all schools.
Richard’s idea of keeping his family safe was to isolate them. Mildred’s idea was to document. Nichols did speak with their daughter Peggy but she was like her father. Very closed up and quiet. Also she was so young when the decision was handed down that she doesn’t remember much about her home life at the time. Both her brothers have died from cancer.
There is no buildup in the film. Central Point was a very very small town that was always a mix of races – Native American, black, and white. Richard and Mildred grew up across the street from one another in a place that allowed them to fall in love. It wasn’t odd to them. Richard’s father worked for a black man, which also helped erase a line of division. Richard’s friends were black men and they all worked on cars together.
Als said that Nichols had escaped all the clichés. There were no big explosions or car crashes. How did you ever get this film made? Nichols didn’t directly answer that question but he said the movie was always going to be a quiet film and not a courtroom drama. In the documentary, the lawyer Bernie Cohen talks about the celebration that happened after the Supreme Court decision. He was asked about the Lovings and Cohen said he thinks they called them on the phone. They weren’t there. That’s when Nichols knew that that was how he had to make the film.
Nichols said the best thing you can do for an actor is to put it on the page. He does not have rehearsals. This began because that’s the way Shannon worked. A good actor shows up and just goes to work. He knew he was going to cast Edgerton because they’d worked together in Midnight Special and Edgerton could do the work and had the right look. Everyone assumed he would hire Shannon to play Richard but Shannon didn’t look like Richard. It was important to Nichols that the actors look and sound like Richard and Mildred. He did a lot of archival work and studied them. He didn’t think he’d ever find an actress to play Mildred but Negga was the first actress to walk in and she didn’t say a word, she sat down, and she held her head like Mildred and spoke just like Mildred. Nichols was thrilled. After the audition, when she spoke, she had an Irish accent. Turns out she is half-Irish and half-Ethiopian. Nichols had no idea. It was obvious that she has studied films of Mildred before the audition. Edgerton is Australian. He wanted to cast foreign actors in the roles because he knew they had to do the work on the accent. The Central Point accent of that time is called a coastal accent. It’s not the same as the Virginia accent of that area today. It frustrates Nichols that some people think of a southern accent as one accent. Everyone looked at archival footage. Richard was a mason so he walked a certain way – he was bent over all day working. Edgerton captured that strange way of standing and walking. Edgerton and Negga were easy with each other from the start.
For the film, Nichols wanted the camera locked on faces. A Steadicam would not give him the look he wanted so they had to build the tracks for dolly shots, which are more expensive.
The first audience question was why didn’t he show them falling in love. Nichols felt a bad version of the movie would have had kid actors looking at each other in a field – made him want to vomit. He saw the date of the first child’s birthday and the wedding date and realized it didn’t match up. That’s when he knew how to start the film. That opening scene shows who Richard is and who they are right away.
Another question was about race relations. Nichols said the couple’s very existence bothered people. So he wanted to show the people in the center of the debate.
They never say, “I love you,” in the movie. Nichols said he didn’t realize that until he’d finished the movie. But it wasn’t a generation that said that. It wasn’t a conscious decision but his grandfather reminded him of Richard, who could not show emotions. If you’re married, you know day-to-day commitment means more than the words.
Tension builds up and there is a release without hyperbole and you don’t let the audience down. Nichols said we know the cues. He used that to his advantage in the film. There are not a lot of personal details of what happened when the family was in hiding and he didn’t want to make stuff up. Richard was a white man living under the shadows that blacks usually only feel.
Als said that Mildred kept saying that she was hopeful and had trust. “I know we have some enemies but we have some friends too.” Nichols said in the case of his grandparents, since his grandfather never spoke or showed emotion, it was up to his grandmother to speak for the family. Mildred had the intelligence and wit to do it.
Afterwards, many people gathered around Nichols and they were still talking to him when I went to the lobby after going to the bathroom. I had never seen any of his films before. I’d always meant to, especially because of Ben’s music, but I just never got around to it. I’m so glad I saw this film and I look forward to catching up with his other work.
By Carene Lydia Lopez