Last night I watched Loving, the new drama about Richard and Mildred Loving's years long legal battle to overturn Virginia's law against interracial marriage. Critical reaction to the film has been mixed, with some arguing that its matter of fact tone undersells the emotional nature of the material. Meanwhile other critics feel like it is the perfect movie for this particular moment in time because it stresses that real social change only comes from good people doing hard work over a long period of time.
Count me into that second camp. By the end of the film I was getting teary-eyed - and that doesn't happen that often because I'm not much of a crier. Quite honestly, the biggest reason why the movie got to me was because it is so restrained. At this point I've seen enough social dramas that build to epic speeches that I've become a little cynical about them. But the fact that I don't respond very well to that sort of obvious emotional manipulation anymore doesn't mean I have a heart of stone, and the fact that Loving emphasizes the actual facts of the case over cheesy sermon-ifying really helped me connect to the heart of the issue. Big abstract ideals are great, but at the end of the day the everyday lives of individual people are a lot more important.
Part of the reason why I'm analyzing my post-Loving reaction in this way is because I just re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, and one of the points he makes in that book is that storytellers often shortchange real life by streamlining all of the details. In truth there is never going to be a main character in any one story; there is never going to be an unimpeachable hero and an irredeemable villain; there's always going to be mundane breaks in the action where people eat breakfast or take naps.
That's a criticism I come to believe in more and more as I grow older. I can respect (and often enjoy) well made awards bait movies that simplify their stories for narrative clarity. But the truth is that most change doesn't happen because a saint performs a miracle. Most change happens because well intentioned people are dilligent about doing dull work - and because they happen to be doing it at the right time and right place. (The Lovings case would have been just as morally righteous ten years earlier - but they probably would have lost it in the courts because the country just wasn't ready yet.)
By focusing on the Loving's daily life, by making it clear that they were just one cog in a larger civil rights machine, by emphasizing that they did this for their own reasons and for their own benefit, and by portraying them as people, not martyrs or saints, but flesh and blood people - this movie sold me. Telling me that their cause was righteous is just preaching to the choir - but telling me who these people were, that was something new. And in my opinion powerful.