Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” would seem to be the “right movie” about racism. It is based on the powerful story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia (black and white, respectively) who married in Washington in June 1958. Weeks after returning to their home state, they were charged, and later convicted, of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. They were forced to leave Virginia, returning only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1967, that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
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The actors in “Loving” are excellent too, with perfect cinematic presence: Joel Edgerton in a thrilling and totally masculine role as Richard Loving; and Ruth Negga, whose every close-up is a diamond in the toolbox of the director and the film editor.
The direction is elegant and gently lyrical, conforming with the dictates of art films (appropriately slow pacing, nuanced lighting, intelligent transitions and the like) while maintaining a popular pulse through delicate dips into legitimate kitsch.
All these are the components of an effective and “good” film in binary terms, which would most likely have earned it a recommendation for anyone with an empty social calendar or some extra sick days. But within this sterility of being just okay, buzzes an ugly and insidious bug that draws your attention.
Two bugs, in fact: The lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union who come to the Lovings’ aid and bring their case, almost by force, all the way to the Supreme Court. These characters are of course also based on real people: Bernard S. Cohen of Brooklyn, who became a politician, and Philip J. Hirschkop, the son of the owner of a clothing store in New Jersey. Still a practicing human-rights lawyer, he later represented Martin Luther King Jr. among other famous clients.
I don’t know what Cohen and Hirschkop looked like at the time of the events depicted in the movie, or how they behaved, but their representation in Nichols’ film is among the most anti-Semitic I have seen on screen in recent years. Cohen (Nick Kroll) is a liar with a clown’s rubber face. Hirschkop (Jon Bass) is a chubby, frizzy-haired nerd.
They may be helping the couple for free, but they are doing so for their own egotistical and piggish reasons, for personal advancement and fame. They deceive the Lovings, endanger them without any pangs of conscience and systematically annoy Richard Loving in particular and the audience in general.
The lawyers’ Shylockian appearances, especially in comparison to their beautiful clients, and their intrigues and tactics, invite obvious distrust — again, heightened by the contrast to the naivete of the couple being sacrificed on the altar of love.
So what is really going on here? How is it that the nephews of “The Jew Suss” appear in such an expensive anti-racism pamphlet?
One gesture, in which Richard Loving screws up his eyes, normally filled with grace and emotion, in hatred when he hears Cohen’s name, caused me to guess that this grating affect is conscious and intentional.
If I am wrong, then this is what actually saves the film from the tedious fate of a mediocre didactic or self-righteous product, if only because it provokes thoughts beyond the obvious (racism sucks, people can be evil).
The conclusion is that everyone, the bad and ugly as well as the beautiful martyr, has certain prejudices that are based on an atavistic hatred.
In Israeli society, this translates to: Those who don’t hate Arabs are put off by Mizrahim; those who aren’t put off by Mizrahim are dismissive of women; those who are not dismissive of women are disgusted by homosexuals, or Russian immigrants, and so on and so forth. They all foment hatred against one another, even while feeling the boot of racism on their own necks, despite the supposed brotherhood between the downtrodden. But as “Loving” proves, in the end this can lead to achievements under the broad liberal umbrella of human rights organizations.
This is a more faithful, sophisticated and interesting representation of reality, which should more properly be reflected within the film, certainly one that is “based on a true story.”