A- A A+

Interracial romance's antidote to cultural appropriation

2 Comments
Tim Kroenert |  07 March 2017

 

Loving (PG). Director: Jeff Nichols. Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton. 123 minutes

A few weeks ago I wrote rather harshly about Hidden Figures, an unabashedly feelgood film whose broad sympathy for its black characters is eroded somewhat by the indelibly white perspective of its writer and director. I stopped short of accusing the filmmakers of maleficent cultural appropriation, partly on the assumption that they were well intentioned. Yet good intentions are not in themselves sufficient justification when it comes to the appropriation of minority stories by 'majority' artists. The task, if it is to be undertaken, demands greater care than mere sympathy.

Jeff Nichols' Loving, another 'based on fact' film, maps another, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying approach. Nichols, like Hidden Figures' director Theodore Melfi, is a white man offering a perspective on black history. Yet while his film purports to be a romantic drama about an interracial marriage, it is more precise to say it is, at least in its initial stages, a film about a white man's relationship with a black woman. It is set in Virginia in the mid-20th century (the same period in which the events of Hidden Figures occur); a time and place where such a relationship is beyond taboo.

Frank Loving bears the name that was taken for the film's title; he also bears the emotional heft of the film's first act. Inhabited by Joel Edgerton with a stiffly slump-shouldered stoicism and a slurred, mumbling manner of speech, Frank is the primary agent within his relationship with Mildred (Ruth Negga). It is him who endures the ugliest of redneck glares; yet he sees himself as a provider, and after Mildred becomes pregnant, he purchases property, swears to build her a house, and whisks her off to Washington DC to obtain a marriage certificate that will be legally void in their home state.

It's Frank's anguish that we witness in detail after they are arrested for this indiscretion, and it is Frank who is lorded over by the morally corrupt sheriff (Marton Csokas), who is barely able to contain his disgust at the biological convergence foretold by such a union. Frank literally slings cinderblocks for a living, and at the same time tries to make of himself a brick wall with which to preserve Mildred and their marriage from a hostile world. Mildred, on the other hand, through all this, appears docile and acquiescent, fearful, and glad of the promise of care and protection from Frank.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in LovingYet once we have been drawn deeply into Frank's character and his experience of these events, there is a shift.

 

"The film recognises even the relative privilege of Frank, who is left without retort by a black friend's drunken insistence that he has no concept of real hardship."

 

In later years, Mildred would say of Frank that 'he always took care of me'; yet this telling of the story shows a more mutual exchange of strength and support than such a statement might imply. The Lovings' entanglement with the state of Virginia would ultimately lead to constitutional change in the United States in favour of interracial marriage, and Loving portrays Ruth as the main agent of the battle.

It is her, after all, who has the courage to continually defy the Virginian laws; who has the hope and determination to endure the wranglings of the legal system; who appreciates and cares about the broader social and political implications of their case; who is willing to play up to the media, acknowledging the benefits of a high profile. Negga has earned a slew of award nominations for her performance; where there are cracks in the mortar of Frank's stoicism, Negga's Mildred possesses a deeply embedded mettle and dignity for which her outward placidity is but a veil.

One of Hidden Figures' weaknesses is its tendency to soften or confect sympathy for its white characters, despite being set during a period of such violent prejudice. Loving does not make this mistake. The civil rights lawyers who take up the Lovings' cause are not heroic; they are ambitious and obsequious. Frank's mother palpably disapproves of her son's life choices, and early in the film there's a strange, portentous juxtaposition where she is seen folding white sheets while Frank ruminates upon which of his neighbours in their hatred might have turned him and Mildred in to the sheriff. (The image is left ambigious.)

The film recognises even the relative privilege of Frank himself, who is left without retort by a black friend's drunken insistence that he has no concept of real hardship. He has choices that Mildred and their black friends do not, and, if he so chooses, access to a kind of social freedom that remains closed off to black Americans to this day. Loving's treatment of such matters makes it a persuasive riposte to those who would appropriate others' stories without due care. Not only is such sensitive, thoughtful nuance beneficial when we tell stories about those whose experiences differ greatly from our own; it is vital.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.

 



Comments

Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

This film will be added to my 'to watch' list. It's not always wise to compare one film to another, even if they deal with the same subject matter. However, set in the late 60's, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", an unashamed comedy-drama, is a film that was well and truly a ground-breaker. It was the great Spencer Tracy's final movie and his headstrong daughter, in the film, wants to marry a young black doctor. There are some hugely memorable lines in this film and it transcends it's comedy-drama profile to pack a real punch. I hope "Loving" enters the same domain.

Pam 09 March 2017

What this article shows is that the concept of 'cultural appropriation' cannot be used pre-emptively to stop a Lionel Shriver or a Jeff Nichols (or an 'Elena Ferrante') from producing a work. Whether 'cultural appropriation' has occurred can only be determined after the fact. Otherwise, there would be legitimate grounds for saying that a white Australian man should not be reviewing a film concerning the emotions of white (let alone black) Americans.

Roy Chen Yee 09 March 2017

Similar articles

Faith is torture in Scorsese's Silence

6 Comments
Tim Kroenert | 22 February 2017

It is the story of two 17th century Portuguese Jesuits who travel to Japan to locate their former mentor, who is said to have renounced his faith, and to spread Catholicism. They find the local Christian populations have been driven underground, under threat of torture and execution. The lesson they come to learn against this fraught backdrop is that the living out of religious faith and the strengths and limitations of ordinary humanity cannot be considered in isolation from each other.


Space race saga's Black history through White eyes

1 Comment
Tim Kroenert | 14 February 2017

There's a gag about sitting in the back of the bus, the realities of segregation dismissed with a giggle; references to university sit-ins and firebombings come via the eyes of a cartoonishly earnest character. Meanwhile the White characters are either the object of contrived sympathy, or too thinly drawn to invoke genuine menace. Accusations of 'cultural appropriation' might be uncharitable, but the short shrift given to the real, continuing hardships of Black experience raises questions about objectives and authenticity.


Fences and co. fight back against Oscars racial bias

1 Comment
Tim Kroenert | 08 February 2017

The Academy, it seems, has listened. After the #whiteoscars furore of past years, three of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures, are films with predominantly (if not entirely) Black casts, and focused on the experiences of Black characters. Cast and crewmembers from all three have been nominated in various categories. To be fair, all three films would have demanded attention, with or without the recent controversy around awards season racial bias.


Race, addiction and sexuality by moonlight

2 Comments
Tim Kroenert | 01 February 2017

The chaos embedded in these characters' world is made clear through physical symbols - Chiron flees from bullies into an abandoned drug den, where he finds a used syringe and holds it up to the light like a talisman - and by the camera, which trails and circles the characters, or locks onto their faces, a conduit for their grief or desperation or lust or rage or joy. Bursts of actual violence or dramatic confrontation are rare. Where they occur it is their emotional content that is most confronting.


Jackie, JFK and the making of American myths

2 Comments
Tim Kroenert | 18 January 2017

The perspective is Jackie's at all times; JFK himself rarely appears onscreen, and often is just a shoulder or a jaw glimpsed in profile at his wife's side. Portman's is a fine portrayal, displaying at all times an abiding grace and dignity, whether she is washing her husband's blood off her face, or facing down the questions of an astute journalist who may or may not be on her side. In the making of the Camelot myth, Jackie models the presidential funeral on Abraham Lincoln's, by this very process rejecting her brother-in-law Robert's doubts that the Kennedy presidency ultimately amounted to much at all.