Virginia, 1958. Richard Loving took his pregnant girlfriend Mildred to Washington D.C. to be married. Upon returning to Mildred’s family home they celebrate. In the middle of the night, police break into their home and arrest the pair for breaking anti-miscegenation laws intended to prevent the union of mixed race couples. Facing a Judge, they are given a choice, serve jail time or leave Virginia with a suspended sentence, knowing that should they return within 25 years they will be sent to prison. Choosing the latter, they abscond to D.C., but after a few years away, pine for home. They return to Virginia with their two sons and daughter, living in secret, fearful that the police or members of their community will become aware of their situation. With the rise of the civil rights movement, the American Civil Liberties Union see the pair as a perfect case to incite change in these antiquated laws and despite their reticence, the Lovings begin to push for recognition of their marriage and children.
Loving is based on a true story and after it’s viewing, it’s unclear what is more disconcerting: That it was a little over 50 years ago that such backward laws were in place, or that the film’s themes of oppression, fear, racial prejudice, and equality are issues that resonate through our society today.
Despite sounding like a courtroom drama, Loving is anything but. There are no stirring monologues, no Erin Brockovich-like figure pushing back against the state, no grandstanding by a lawyer in front of a jury. In fact there’s probably 5 minutes total time spent within the courtroom. Even the moments in the Supreme Court are interwoven with scenes of family. And that’s where Nichols focuses the story, on this man and woman and their lives together, from the mid 1950s to the 1967 victory. The changing of the seasons and aging of their children are used to deftly convey the passage of time, an essential component of the film as we are confronted with the terrible fact that these people are losing their lives in a purgatory forced upon them. Even when returning to their home state, the specter of retribution hangs over them, living in hiding, knowing that the next car that drives up to their farm could be the police to arrest them, or worse, people willing to take the law into their own hands.
The script from Nichols avoids being overly melodramatic or sentimental. This isn’t a film that gives you a “feel good factor”. Instead it’s a genuine and moving portrayal of the hardships the Lovings experience. It somewhat underplays the egregiousness of what is happening, but the reality forever looms over this humble pair who just go about their business with a seething hatred at the periphery of their lives. It’s intense, upsetting and frustrating. A fraction of the emotional torment the Lovings and many others endured during this time.
Edgerton fully immerses himself in the role of Richard. A simple working class man driven just by one simple fact: he loves his wife. Reluctant to be placed within this political maelstrom, despite his soft-spoken nature, Edgerton delivers plenty through his mannerisms and actions. But it’s Ruth Negga that truly shines here. The story works as a coming of age arc for Mildred, the toll of her life and her experiences giving Negga cause to imbue her with a strength and maturity as the film progresses. She also gives the film a much needed warmth. It’s a nuanced and genuine performance from the pair and a component that is essential to the films success. Nick Kroll is usually known for his comedic work but slips into the film effortlessly as a civil rights lawyer who has an act of his own going on. There’s also a brief but wonderful turn by Michael Shannon as the Life magazine photographer Grey Villet, who took the famous pictures of the Lovings for the magazine article “The Crime of Being Married“.
With Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special and now Loving, Jeff Nichols continues to make his stamp on cinema as one of the most talented directors of this generation. He’s crafted a world that feels tangible. There is a lived in feel to the film, tactile and real, reinforcing the impact of what unfolds. He also never loses focus of this man and woman and gives Negga and Edgerton a wonderful platform to work on, and they sure do pay him back for that. His work here on the script is also impressive. These are fine lines to tread in cinema, effective without being melodramatic, having a message without being preachy. Perhaps at times the film needs a little more anger, Nichols showing the subjects and topic too much respect, but who can blame him for that.
Loving already feels like a seminal contribution to American history. The Lovings were not alone in this, and by connecting to their struggle we can in some small way better understand all those oppressed and denied equal rights for so long, and indeed still today. These people weren’t activists; they were just following their heart. This is where the title picks up its resonance beyond their surname. To use a current political phrase, love trumps hate. Despite the fear and bigotry, the Lovings and many others like them followed their hearts despite the hardships that were before them. Embracing the better parts of our nature can be a force for change, even if we don’t realize it. Loving honors that, and all those who pursue it.
Loving was the opening night film of the Austin Film Festival and opens nationwide November 4th.