Jeff Nichols didn’t always want to make movies about working-class Americans.
“I remember in high school watching Scorsese gangster films and telling my dad I wanted to make a gangster picture,” the 38-year-old Arkansas native said in a recent phone conversation. “My dad said, ‘Why?’
“I said it was because gangster movies are cool, because that’s what movies are about.
“And he said, ‘Listen, there’s more interesting stuff going on all around you.’ ”
Nichols took that advice to heart.
In a feature film career that began only nine years ago he has established himself as the eloquent cinematic voice of America’s little guy.
His subject matter may be a modern Hatfield-and-McCoy feud (“Shotgun Stories”), a tale of working-class paranoia (“Take Shelter”), a new take on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (“Mud”) or even a sci-fi thriller (“Midnight Special”). Whatever the yarn, it invariably involves common, country folk.
“I try to write about people and places I identify with,” Nichols says. “I can hear their voices in my head. It’s just easier to listen to them.”
In “Loving,” Nichols takes on his first fact-based story, that of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, two utterly average people who in 1959 were convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Forced to leave Virginia as part of a plea deal, the Lovings over the next decade repeatedly risked imprisonment by slipping back into their home state to visit their families and have their children — Richard’s mother was a midwife.
Eventually their case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even before its national opening on Wednesday, “Loving” was being hailed as a major Oscar contender, a heartbreaking love story that also carries the weight of history and sweeping social change.
Nominations are likely for Nichols’ screenplay and direction, and for the performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving.
Though the film is about a landmark Supreme Court decision, it’s not a legal procedural.
“It’s a movie about true love,” Nichols said. “We live in pretty cynical times, and I’m the first to jump on that bandwagon. But I watched my grandparents be married for 50 years, I’ve watched my parents, and I think true love can exist. It’s possible.
“And that’s exactly what was going on with Richard and Mildred Loving.”
One of the things movies do so well is engage an audience’s deepest emotions, Nichols said.
“We can identify with the possibility of love far more than we can with political or social debates. We can all look at the love between the Lovings and feel it.
“Their story is at the heart of the danger and tragedy of racism and bigotry. You’re judging someone on something they have no control over. Richard and Mildred fell in love. It wasn’t an act of defiance, it wasn’t about a cause.”
Nichols used as a primary research tool the 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” which featured extensive footage of Richard and Mildred taken as they awaited the results of what would be their landmark case.
“Watching the documentary I felt like Richard Loving was my grandfather. And I was really moved by the beauty and simple elegance of Mildred, her connection to home. So much so that she would risk her family’s safety by returning to Virginia and living in hiding.
“I understood these people. And I knew that if we could capture their essence, everything else would follow.”
2016 has already seen the arrival of “The Birth of a Nation,” a drama about an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. It’s an angry and mournful movie, and that’s a perfectly valid approach, Nichols said.
“With ‘Loving’ I was trying to avoid getting too political,” he said. “We get so heated and aggressive and get entrenched in our thought processes. We adhere to our liberal or conservative platforms.
“This movie asks you to look beyond platforms. We have to remember that people — real people with real lives — are at the center of all of this.”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.