Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski had been on the job for all of five days when footage screened for writer-director Jeff Nichols’ interracial biopic “Loving” at the Berlin Film Festival. He jumped on the opportunity, buying all available world rights for $9 million.
Fall festival showings in Cannes and Toronto reveal a full-fledged Oscar contender. It’s a sincere, restrained portrait of a biracial Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Australian Joel Edgerton and half-Irish actress Ruth Negga), who were arrested under miscegenation laws in 1962 after marrying in Washington, D.C. In order to avoid prison time, a local judge demanded they leave the state for 25 years if they wanted to stay together. Eventually, the ACLU supported their landmark civil rights case and took it to the Supreme Court; its 1967 ruling struck down all miscegenation laws nationwide.
In our video interview in Cannes, Edgerton, who co-starred with Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst in Nichols’ “Midnight Special,” tells me how he plumbed the depths of this quiet construction worker, from his clipped Virginia accent and close-cropped hair to his teeth. “The words barely escaped his mouth,” he said, admitting that Nichols told him “I almost want to understand you less.”
Edgerton and Negga aimed at showing the “true traumatic situation that these two people endured,” he said. “We aimed to tell the truth. What crime is love and a gentle feeling between two people?”
While respected actors’ actor Edgerton earned raves in “Animal Kingdom,” “Warrior,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Black Mass” and “The Gift” (which he also directed), he has never achieved an Oscar nomination. He’s due.
Many people remember the Lovings’ story that ran in Life Magazine, showing the rugged brick mason and housewife at home with their three children. Nichols and his cast were able to draw from that material (Nichols regular Michael Shannon cameos as the photographer) and other footage from the period, including Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” to lend the film as much authenticity as possible.
Edgerton brings muscular conviction to this strong but tender man who wants nothing more than to be able to take care of his wife and family. He loves his wife, deeply, and can’t fathom why others (including his own mother, a midwife) would disapprove.
“One of the things that struck me while working on this film,” Edgerton said at the Cannes press conference, “is what happens between two individuals is nobody else’s business … Under the surface, racism or negative opinion to me is something that I think we really need to talk about.” Edgerton hopes the film will open a “broader discussion about being kind to each other,” he said. “A conversation is always good,” said Negga. “It’s how we learn.”
For Nichols, movies can humanize political issues by putting faces on real people with feelings. “Hopefully it makes people think about the fact that people are at the center of these debates,” he said, “people that matter and people whose lives are affected by these decisions.”