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.
Yet 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 Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.