When simple people cause violent social change

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such [interracial] marriage[s]. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Thus spake Leon Bazile, the Virginia trial judge who in late 1958 set out to uphold a pair of unfortunate American traditions: Racial segregation and the invocation of God to justify it. Bazile’s ruling was meant to reaffirm a Virginia law against miscegenation and put asunder what the Lord (and a justice of the peace) had joined together. What Bazile did, in effect, was open the door to the 1967 Supreme Court decision that would change the meaning of marriage in America.

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“Loving,” the new film from Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) has a dream of a title; it names the principal characters as well as the crime they committed. On June 2, 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, with Mildred pregnant, got married in Washington, D.C., thus avoiding Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. In the film, Richard (Joel Edgerton) is well aware of what they are doing and the law they are evading; Mildred not quite. On July 14, at around 2 a.m., police break down their doors and roust the couple from the marital bed. “I’m his wife,” Mildred tells an officer. The officer replies, “Not here you’re not.”

Loving v. Virginia is a great story in which the Supreme Court ruled, by a rather quaint 9-0 decision, that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and marriage an inherent right. But does it make for a great movie? Not really. The Lovings always seemed like wonderful people, country people—simple, basic and  bewildered as much as by the attention they got as by the unfairness of the law. But outside of the arrest and the court battles to come, their lives were not exactly electrifying. They moved to Washington, D.C., after being banished from Virginia. Richard worked as a carpenter/mason at construction jobs in and around the city. One of Nichols’s recurring motifs is of Richard applying concrete to brick and block in a process intended to mirror the courts—that is, painstaking and slow. The couple had three children. One gets hit by a car, and though he is only hurt, it makes Mildred long even more for rural Virginia, to which the family returns and where they live secretly. But once the outrage and indignities of their arrest and jailing have come to pass, the film spends a lot of time on their daily lives, and the portrayal of their day-to-day existence is not as compelling.

“Loving” aims for maximum indignation, as well as sentiment. Ruth Negga looks quite a bit like the real Mildred Loving and captures the same kind of quiet sweetness one sees in the period footage and interviews done with the couple back when they suddenly became newsworthy. (Whether Mildred’s quiet charm was a byproduct of an atmosphere of racial fear is something the viewer can decide.) The movie’s evocation of a late-1950s and early-’60s South feels authentic; the people even look as if they belong in the time being portrayed, which is not always the case with period movies.

Edgerton is more of a problem and a puzzle. His portrayal of Richard Loving is physically right. He wears the same blond buzz-cut; he has a similarly muscular bearing. He moves like a man tripping over his own humility. But Edgerton eschews the obvious intelligence of the Loving we see in Nancy Biurski’s recent documentary, “The Loving Story,” for instance (a must for those interested in the real case), in favor of something almost primal. The real Loving seems to have been retiring, yes; but he displays nothing like the near-pathological reticence of Edgerton’s character, who bears a too-striking similarity to Boo Radley. Mouth agape, shoulders sloped, the Loving delivered in “Loving” is a product of Acting with a capital A, the kind of thing that sucks the air out of a movie, and without much of an emotional payoff.

This is not, of course, meant to downplay the importance of what the Lovings meant to the United States or race relations or same-sex marriage. Nor is it to deny the many moving moments in the film. But the inertia is made more glaring when something exciting actually happens, like Michael Shannon’s arrival as the Life magazine photographer Grey Villet, who elevates the mood of the whole movie and even gets Richard Loving to laugh, or the arrival on the scene of the lawyers Bernard Cohen of the American Civil Liberties Union (played by Nick Kroll) and his colleague-to-be Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), who would eventually argue the Loving case before the Supreme Court. Kroll, in particular, delivers a weird, twitchy performance—but not very far, to be honest, from the Cohen we see in news clips. The two of them are very alive and energized by their pending landmark case. Their unabashed careerism makes them both funny and human.

“Loving” is film about a lot of things, including two simple people causing violent eruptions across the social and legal landscapes. It is a portrait of America at a particular time and place. So is “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which intends to cause a fierce revolution in the way we see movies. Directed by one of our finest filmmakers, Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm,” “Lust, Caution,” “Sense and Sensibility”), it is based on the novel by Ben Fountain about a hero soldier (Joe Alwyn), who returns from Iraq in the mid-2000s and is thrust into a maelstrom of media exploitation, deal-making, clueless expressions of sympathy and the empty echo of “Thank you for your service.” Bravo Company’s tour of celebrity duty culminates at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving, as it performs at halftime with Destiny’s Child (Beyonce’s old group, for readers under the age of 14). The experience is excruciating, for Billy and for us, but what Fountain strives to express in his novel is the dissolving lack of distinction in American media, life and consciousness between what is real and what is not.

This makes the book, and Texas Stadium, something of a perfect laboratory for Lee’s movie, which is more than an experiment and something less than a fully realized cinematic experience, if only because the audience won’t be ready for what it sees. Almost since the beginning of (movie) time, film has been shot at 24 frames a second, a rate that makes comfortable the phenomenon known as persistence of vision (the illusion of action on screen). Lee shot “Billy Lynn” at 120 fps, as well as in 3D and 4K (four times the pixels). Although most audiences will not see the film at higher than a 3D/4K/60 fps presentation (because dual projectors are need to deliver 120, and most theaters do not have them), it is a different thing entirely. Many people will find it too real (“Hobbit” viewers had a similar problem, because that film too was shot at a high frame rate), the image too clean and alive. Some will find it reminiscent of video, soap operas and sports events. Lee, whose cast in “Billy Lynn” includes Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel and Garrett Hedlund, has a new palette at his disposal and uses it with intellectual rigor, changing the look of the film to accommodate the emotions he’s after in ways far more dramatic than were possible in the past. During many of the more spectacular scenes, at the halftime show for instance, the immediacy of the action is utterly enthralling. Whether it is cinema is another question, one that will take time to answer.

Is anyone going to watch “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and fully absorb the meaning of the story, the messages it brings about war and warriors and a nation’s responsibilities? No; they are more likely to be dazzled by the spectacle—which, in its own perverse way, captures the message of the novel perfectly. 

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