NEW YORK — “Loving,” apart from gifting cinema its greatest double-entendre, may act as a beneficial reminder to some about the key role Jews played in the American Civil Rights movement. I say “may” because there is a possibility, intentional or not, that the two Jewish lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Phil Hirschkop, could be interpreted by some audiences as exploitative, irresponsible or unsettlingly shyster-like.
To repeat the classic phrase, I’m just not sure this ends up being “Good for the Jews.”
Watching “Loving” is something of a roller-coaster and, for Jews attuned to the way we are portrayed in media, there’s a second track divorced from the main story of an interracial couple looking for justice and love to conquer all. One moment “Loving” seems like the corrective to the Jewish omission in “Selma.” The next minute it’s, “Oy, this is what they focus on?”
“Loving” tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose 1967 case before the United States Supreme Court stomped out the prohibition of interracial marriage that still existed in Southern states. The couple (he was white, she was African-American and Native-American) were legally married in Washington, DC, in 1958.
The nation’s capital wasn’t too far geographically from their home in Caroline County, Virginia, but in terms of temperament it was worlds away. Their perseverance has inspired previous films, a children’s book and even launched “Loving Day,” an annual unofficial holiday that celebrates diverse marriages. (The built-in marketing with their surname makes this too irresistible.)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (whose previous work includes the extraordinary “Take Shelter,” “Mud” and “Midnight Special”) makes a number of unusual choices with his version of the Loving story. It is not a traditional legal biopic. He focuses instead on the smaller, personal struggles that Richard (played by Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (played by Ruth Negga) faced. These were two hard-working people from a quiet, rural community who had no interest in becoming political lightning rods. They were arrested in their bedroom and told that unless they got their marriage annulled they’d have to leave town.
When one looks at a thumbnail recap of the Loving story and reads they were forced to move two hours away to Washington, DC, one can still roil at the injustice but think, “Well, surely they adapted.” This is where Nichols’ storytelling kicks in. Yes, the Lovings and their children survived, but these were country folk who didn’t want to live in a city.
The indignity of the situation — of being told “No, you can’t do what you want even though we have no moral authority to make this demand of you” — is what is at the heart of this film, and it is heartbreaking to watch it slowly chip away at the family. (Never does one get a sense, though, that the state would win and that Richard or Mildred would throw in the towel on their marriage. True love doesn’t work that way.)
Though the Lovings were resolute, they were poor and not exactly well-connected. It took a suggestion from their DC housemate to send a letter to Robert Kennedy, and that letter worked its way to the American Civil Liberties Union and, eventually, on the desk of an interested lawyer.
The scene in “Loving” where the phone rings and Nick Kroll (known best for his comedic roles) says “My name is Bernard Cohen” is like the judicial equivalent of a superhero flying in from out of nowhere to save the day. As I sat in the theater next to a fellow Jewish film critic and heard his name, I must confess I mumbled a quiet “Yes!” Who will fight for what is righteous? Some guy named Cohen will, that’s who!
But Kroll’s portrayal of Cohen is a little vexing. The film is very serious (as it should be) so when Cohen drops in to rescue the Lovings he isn’t just the “Jew-us Ex Machina,” he’s comic relief.
In his first scene, he’s shown fibbing his importance a bit by borrowing a friend’s impressive desk. This means swapping his own name on the front and taking down the other guy’s family photos. Moments later he’s spitballing ideas to get the case back before a judge, which includes getting the couple intentionally re-arrested and putting his would-be clients at risk. Crafty he may be, sensitive to the needs of working class parents, less so.
The real Cohen met with Nichols and his producer Sarah Green prior to filming, so even if this is a bit of a tall tale, one can assume that it got his approval. Later in the movie Cohen, who was not a big league attorney yet, ends up working with the more senior Phil Hirschkop, played by Jon Bass.
For each scene in which the two seem to be working overtime for the cause of justice, there’s another where, without asking, they are sticking their noses in on the Lovings. One moment outside a courthouse, in which the normally shy and tight-lipped couple aren’t exactly in the mood to talk, Cohen and Hirschkop swoop down with cameras to get a reaction. They say to one another, “This could change the US Constitution!” But are they working for a noble goal, or do they just want to advance their careers? The movie is a little more ambiguous than it needs to be.
We are supposed to think they are working toward a “long goal” here. But plop an alt-right American racist down to watch “Loving,” and he’ll come away thinking, “Oh, so these crook-nosed Yids had to go and cause a fuss, even though the family didn’t really ask them to go that far.”
“Loving” is a movie, not a hard news documentary, so it needs moments of conflict and tension. We don’t really know what facts are stretched or omitted for drama’s sake. But Nichols didn’t hold back with his casting or his costume department. Kroll and Bass are both very heimish-looking young men to begin with. In “Loving” they really Jew-it-up. If this were just a typical fiction film I don’t think it would matter much.
This is a political film of the moment
But at its core, and despite what I’m sure are Nichols’ pure intentions as an artist (made evident by veering away from big emotional courtroom scenes), this is a political film of the moment. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and is being teed up for Oscar season. (Ruth Negga is terrific and probably gets my vote over Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” for what it’s worth.)
This isn’t to suggest the truth should be bent to keep the martyrdom of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in amber. But every filmmaker makes choices. With African American-Jewish relations, shall we say, not currently at their apogee, such less-than-angelic Jewish representation in this particular film is going to get scrutiny. When used primarily to ratchet up the main characters’ well-deserved paranoia or to get some chuckles from a modern audience, it may not be exactly what’s needed.