I know it’s too late for my opinion to influence Oscar voters: But Jeff Nichols’s Loving is almost surely the best film of the year.
It’s only in a very secondary way about a very important Supreme Court decision. Secondary is pretty important, though: We conservatives need to be reminded about what was good about Bobby Kennedy, ACLU lawyers, and the Warren Court. Those lawyers were right to highlight that miscegenation laws were a singularly degrading badge of slavery, and the opinion defending them by the local Virginia judge gave them the ammunition they needed. He monstrously grounded the Virginia law in the crudest form of scientific racism, with a biblical overlay. The legal system of Virginia wasn’t elevated by any Atticus Finch in this case.
The movie mostly shows us what should have been the ordinary but still wonderfully virtuous life of the Lovings. Working-class life in very rural Caroline County, Va., was remarkably undeformed by racism. The extended families of the couple were close, and we’re touched by how little race governs their life. And by how deep — and how physical (the film is perfect in capturing the significance of body language, including facial expression) — their love is.
But most of all: Richard Loving is a man of very few words but all kinds of skills. He builds houses, works construction, fixes and races cars, and knows everything required to take care of his own in the middle of nowhere in the country. His acceptance of life is genuinely stoic, and he is, in a way, a rational fortress that gives him the determination to be responsible for those he loves. Compared with the more bookish stoics (such as Atticus Finch), though, he’s much more lovingly wrapped up in his family than in himself. There’s a lesson here about how little virtue has to do with books, although it does depend on being raised right.
Mildred Loving, who is equally shy, speaks with a quiet perfect eloquence and with more hope for what federal law might do for her family. She sees the limits of her husband’s ability to secure them, and her concern is always with what’s best for their children. Kids live in cages in the city, which is where they have to live once expelled from the open fields of Virginia.
So all in all the film is very southern but anti-aristocratic. It’s about the virtue of “skilled labor” embedded in families, including extended families, in the country. The both natural and exquisitely mannered life of the rural (but hardly simple) people of Caroline Country is surely a bit idealized, but that’s what poets do. And, to my mind, it’s a lot more realistic than, say, Wendell Bailey or much of “Southern Agrarianism.”
Bottom line: Our country lives in bubbles. This film means to be a learning experience for both of them. And La La Land is just ridiculous by comparison.
Loving deserves to be compared with the perhaps equally excellent Manchester by the Sea, on the highly competent and reliable protective relational virtues of skilled labor. But, despite all the injustice the Lovings endured, it’s a much less extreme and so more telling case.