For lovers of movies, there are few things more frustrating than realizing that the hotly-anticipated film (about which critics are raving) that you’ve been eager to see turns out to be profoundly boring and underwhelming. Unfortunately, that’s the experience I had with the new civil rights drama, Loving.
Directed by the talented auteur Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), and starring my favorite actor, Joel Edgerton, Loving is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who, in a landmark 1967 Supreme Court case, successfully challenged the state of Virginia’s law that stipulated white people could not marry non-white people.
It would be hard to imagine a more powerful backdrop for a character study than placing a devoted husband and wife in the context of a culture that refuses to acknowledge their marriage. The fact that this story is true, and that it took place within my parents’ lifetime, only heightens the intense emotions that any reasonable American would feel while watching a well-crafted retelling of what this brave couple endured in the name of love, freedom and common decency.
And yet, nearly halfway into Loving, I found myself feeling guilty for how little I felt for the characters. By the film’s “climax,” I had long since checked out (emotionally) and was thinking of how good a meatball sandwich sounded.
Not exactly the reaction the filmmaker was going for, I’d wager.
Loving is a movie about a monumentally important event and weighty issues that America still wrestles with today. It is helmed by an awesome director. It features exceptional actors. And yet the sum total of their efforts tapped into none of the visceral emotions I walked into that theater ready to be available to a potentially potent story. Instead, I got an unnecessarily slow, plodding, “understated” depiction of people and events that should have prompted both strong feelings and boundless gratitude that we are lucky enough to live in a free country where such injustice can be overcome.
It is understandable that an artist like Nichols would want to tackle a sensitive, racially-charged subject matter from a different angle than, say, the larger-than-life tone in films like Selma or Gandhi. But Nichols offers the audience almost no background, context or guidance in terms of who these people are and what was at stake. American audiences are made up largely of people who went to American public schools, but unfortunately, we don’t know our history. It falls on filmmakers to provide at least some historical scaffolding for their ideas-motivated movies.
We’re not asking that every biopic or historical drama end with the theme music from Rudy playing as the protagonist is carried off the field, but give us something more than well-lit scenes of people quietly washing the dishes together. Perhaps moviegoers’ expectations have become skewed given the constant stream of over-the-top action and superhero movies that dominate the box office. But I think there’s still room for challenging films that tackle difficult issues without losing their grandeur and narrative pace. We want to lose ourselves in a movie. Sometimes, we even want to be emotionally manipulated. It’s why we go to the theater. What a shame that in telling such an emotionally powerful and true story, the filmmakers of Loving forgot that.