Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’ Brings a Human Touch to Social Issue Dramas

2017 Texas Film Hall of Fame
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Five films into an increasingly acclaimed career, Jeff Nichols, Variety’s Creative Impact in Directing honoree, keeps hitting firsts. His directorial debut, 2007’s “Shotgun Stories,” was not only his first film, but had its world premiere at the Berlin fest, marking Nichols’ introduction to the international fest circuit.

Follow-up “Take Shelter” bowed at Sundance and screened at Cannes, his first time at each fest; “Mud,” Nichols’ first Cannes premiere, was also his first time working with A-list talent (Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon); and “Midnight Special,” released in early 2016, was his first film for a major studio (Warner Bros.).

But it’s Nichols latest film, “Loving,” that could draw another first: Oscar nominations. Tipped as a best picture contender since it was unveiled at Cannes in May, the film, inspired by the powerful true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, is also a strong nomination possibility in adapted screenplay, directing, and acting bids for its Golden Globe-nominated leads Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.

The Lovings were at the center of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the U.S. And Few filmmakers could tell their story with the level of authenticity and respect the Arkansas-born Nichols brings. He has established himself as an auteur poet of the American South. He makes films about people often overlooked in Hollywood, and makes them without a drop of either condescension or self-importance.

The quiet, understated “Loving” takes its cues from the characters’ unassuming personalities and tranquil rural environment, to tell a groundbreaking, and frequently infuriating, piece of history in a modest and thoughtful fashion. The approach unexpectedly heightens the emotional impact, by placing the tender and pure relationship between Richard and Mildred above any of the traditional courtroom theatrics or racially charged melodrama one might expect from a typical “social issue” movie.

Still, the connection between the events of the film, which take place over a decade beginning in 1958, and the political strife of today could not be more evident. “Loving” invites a conversation about America’s tortured history of civil rights and racial and gender discrimination, while echoing the more recent victories in the battle for marriage equality.

That’s something the Lovings themselves never could’ve anticipated, they simply wanted the right to be together, but contemporary audiences can’t miss. As Nichols told Variety’s Kris Tapley on the Playback podcast, “Their story hasn’t changed but the social dynamic has changed. … We are having, and need to be having, complex conversations about race in this country, and about equality in general, and the Lovings remain this constant example of humanity.”