Jeff Nichols’ latest film, the fact-based drama “Loving,” may be set in the middle part of the twentieth century — it spans from 1958 until the late sixties — but the story it tells and the message it carries remains timely as ever. Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, the film follows the Virginia couple as they are forced to defend their union against their state’s anti-miscegenation laws, a deeply personal fight that eventually became the cornerstone of wider constitutional reforms.
The film debuted at Cannes in May, and has gone on to festival bows at Toronto, Austin, and the Hamptons, amongst many others. While Negga has already been singled out as an Oscar contender — and both she and Edgerton have been nominated for Gotham Awards — much of the narrative that its team has been pushing is focused on something far loftier than awards glory: actual social change.
At a luncheon held in the film’s honor today at Manhattan’s 21 Club, Nichols, Edgerton, Negga and co-star Nick Kroll participated in a half-hour chat moderated by journalist Vicki Mabrey that focused primarily on the issues the film sensitively portrays, and the myriad ways that they still have a hold on the world today.
When asked how the shifting cultural climate impacted his work on the film — Nichols first began working on it back in 2012, unquestionably a very different time in American culture — the director was eager to contextualize his work through a very, very current lens.
“The climate has changed since we premiered at Cannes in May,” Nichols said. “The difference between the aggression and the tenor of the debate in May versus when we screened in September in Toronto, between the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the way we have this conversation [has changed].”
Nichols maintained that he made the film he wanted to make, and while it’s one that he didn’t want to be shaped by shifting debates and tensions, he does hope it can change the conversation on its own merits.
“I don’t think I would have changed my approach, I was just trying to listen to Richard and Mildred,” he said. “But they tell us something. Richard and Mildred, they don’t necessarily give us the answers, but they showed us how to have the conversation.”
Nichols is hopeful that his film — which eschews standard biopic tropes and studiously avoids being a courtroom drama, instead focusing on the intimacy and minutiae of the Lovings’ life in the face of tremendous fear and pressure — might provide some guidance to its audience.
“They remind us that there are people in their homes at the center of all of this stuff,” Nichols said. “You can get on your soapbox, you can push your political agenda or your religious agenda, against gay marriage, against racial equality, but you can’t argue about these people in their home.”
He added, “Equality as a concept isn’t something I think we ever achieve, it’s something we make progress toward, and hope that we don’t slip back and lose any of it. Right now, we’re in a generation that is in dire need of a new definition for equality.”
And that need could not be more immediate.
“Ten, twenty, thirty years, people are going to be looking back on us right now and ask how we did,” he added. “I don’t think we’re doing very well.”
But maybe something like “Loving” can change that.
“I’m a white guy born in 1978, I have no business trying to define the civil rights movement for anyone,” Nichols said. “But I feel quite comfortable talking about Richard and Mildred.”
“Loving” opens on Friday, November 4.