This story about Jeff Nichols first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Jeff Nichols has been a writer-director on every film in his brief but commanding body of work, and they all share similar DNA: masculinity confronting vulnerability, a brand of paranoia and a search for emotional truth. But never has that vision been so fully expressed than with “Loving,” his take on the case of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who effectively invalidated laws against interracial marriage with a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967.
It’s a story about love, about rights, about families, about overcoming bigotry nearly 50 years ago, though those themes seem awfully relevant today. It’s the sort of material that can make for perfect hammy monologues, crashing film scores and tear-jerking pleas before a dusty southern judge’s bench.
But not “Loving.” This bold and historical love story barely makes a sound. “The material is so ripe for drama that if you put your foot on the gas pedal, you immediately risk looking silly and people don’t believe it,” Nichols said. “This great love I saw in them becomes a caricature of itself.”
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, in the roles of Richard and Mildred, are just as subtle as the sum of their parts — a humble Virginia couple who want to marry and build a life together in their rural hometown.
After they quietly travel out of state to wed, someone alerts the local sheriff to the pair’s shacking up, which was illegal in the state even with a marriage license. The image of man and his pregnant wife being ripped from their beds in the middle of the night by a disgusted police force is indelible.
Similar humiliations are endured with stiff upper lips and silence. “Poor people, poor black people, were taught not to speak up,” Nichols said. “That says something in and of itself. You have to bottle up all this stuff. Richard doesn’t get to yell at the sheriff.”
The actors understood the inherent drama, and the frustration of the real-life couple, and adopted their director’s soft-spokenness. “There’s a scene where Joel is on the edge of the bed telling Ruth, ‘I can take care of you.’ All those things are there, you’re just listening at a different volume level,” said Nichols. “There wasn’t ever a moment where I felt like there needed to be more. I was there with my jaw on the floor as it was.”
Response to the film has seen both compliments for its gentle touch and outrage for what some call very little social progress since the age of the Lovings. Nichols recalled a quote from Mildred in 2008, reflecting on her husband (who died in 1974). “She said, ‘I miss him. He took care of me,'” said Nichols. “For that to be what she was thinking about in 2008 before she died, it was so affirming of how they felt about each other.
“She did not think of the damage. She thought of the love.”
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