Cannes: Interracial Marriage Drama 'Loving' Throws Hat in Oscar Ring

Loving 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Director Jeff Nichols and stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga make a strong first-impression as their new film about the landmark Supreme Court case is unveiled.

Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ new film about Richard and Mildred Loving — the interracial couple whose 1958 marriage violated Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, which were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving vs. Virginia ruling in 1967 — held its first press screening Monday morning in Cannes. And it immediately made the case why the film has to be considered one of this year’s first major awards contenders.

Given the material, Nichols could have delivered a standard-issue courtroom drama, culminating with soaring oratory before the nation’s highest court. But he chose to take a different route — the American Civil Liberties Union, agreeing to take on the case, doesn’t enter the picture until more than halfway through the two-hour-three-minute movie. Instead, the film is centered around the Lovings themselves: Richard, played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, and Mildred, played by the Ethiopia-born Ruth Negga.

Both performers should enter the best actor and actress conversations. Edgerton, who previously received good notices for his violent Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and his conflicted FBI agent in Black Mass, plays Richard as a man of few words, who keeps his eyes down and his emotions bottled up. Negga, though not as familiar to American audiences, plays the more optimistic half of the couple, rooted to the land and protective of her three children. Michael Shannon also makes a brief appearance as a Life magazine photographer who captures an image of the couple that provides a powerful moment in the film, but his role isn't large enough for supporting consideration.

In terms of awards potential, the biggest obstacle both Edgerton and Negga may face is that Nichols gives neither character the sort of big, third-act speech that often clinches awards. When Edgerton’s Richard is asked by one of the lawyers what message he wants to convey to the court, he says simply, “Tell them I love my wife.”

But then Nichols intentionally isn’t making a showy movie. The Arkansas-born director, whose previous indie efforts including 2011’s Take Shelter and 2012’s Mud have been deeply rooted in a sense of place, deliberately takes a more understated approach as he shows the Lovings’ connection to their home and respective families and the surrounding Virginia countryside. Sentenced to a year in jail after their marriage in Washington, D.C., they are granted probation if they agree to leave the state. But although they try to get on with their lives in D.C., they are invariably drawn back to the fields of Virginia where they hope to build a home.

Adam Stone’s cinematography and David Wingo’s score both quietly underscore the couple’s plight.

As far as their chances with the Film Academy are concerned, Nichols, Edgerton and Negga are all relatively new players who are likely to find themselves competing against more established names as the season develops. But, bolstering the movie’s case as a best picture hopeful, Loving is being released by Focus Features stateside on Nov. 4. The distributor is sure to play up the film’s topicality. The Loving vs. Virginia decision, in which then Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” was cited in the subsequent 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing the right to same-sex marriage. And, down the road, a White House showing of Loving would seem inevitable. At a press conference that followed the screening, Negga testified, "This is the most important film I've ever made and it is one of the most important films in history. I'm overwhelmed."

Loving also will be entering the awards scrum amid heightened scrutiny over how the Academy treats films about African-American issues and minority performers. Pics like Nate Parker’s Sundance breakout The Birth of a Nation and possible upcoming entries such as Denzel Washington’s Fences are expected to all be in play as a result.

But while Loving, which Focus nabbed for North America and several international territories in Berlin, is likely to be lumped together with other films that could help the Academy avoid a replay of #OscarsSoWhite, it really shouldn’t be viewed as part of some sort of affirmative-action initiative. Greeted by solid applause at the early-morning press screening, the pic demonstrated that it is capable of establishing itself as a contender on its own merits.