If you’re in dire need of a story about how two people instigated a process instigated by their love for one another that literally changed the laws of the land, I would mightily recommend writer-director Jeff Nichols’ (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special) latest Loving, concerning the years-long civil rights case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967. The laws brought into question were about interracial marriage, specifically between Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) of Virginia, who snuck over the border into Washington, D.C., one day in the late 1950s to get married and returned to their hometown to live out their lives peacefully.
But after several months, during which Mildred got pregnant, they were arrested and brought before Judge Bazile (David Jensen) with their lawyer (the great Bill Camp), who arranges a deal for them to not go to jail. Instead, they must leave the state and not return for 20 years. In exile back in D.C., Mildred has a total of three children, but the family feels out of place in a city. Upon the urging of a friend, she writes a letter to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy about their situation, and he appoints fledgling attorney Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) to handle the case.
Despite what you might know about the Lovings’ case, the film is not a collection of highlights of their struggle and rise as reluctant Civil Right warriors. The film spends a great deal of time examining the smaller details of their relationship, how they are around each other, their body language, their physical affection, and the way they are with their children and other family members. The case is almost background to their day-to-day lives, which it essentially was until it started back up in the courts on appeal.
Loving is filled with wall-to-wall great moments, one of the best being when Life magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) comes to the Loving home to snap a few candids and interview the couple. The conversations with the lawyers (Phil Hirschkop, played by Jon Bass) are used more for levity than exposition, since they were effectively navigating unchartered waters at this point. I loved the scenes between the usually understated Richard and his midwife mother Lola (Sharon Blackwood), who speaks even less than he does. But when she does speak her mind about his situation, it hits him like a slap across the face.
There’s a particularly impressive moment late in the film when Richard is sharing a beer with a group of his stock car buddies, all of whom are black, one of whom is berating him for marrying Mildred in the first place. The friend is reminding Richard that he had it made by being white, but by marrying a black woman, that makes Richard black in the eyes of the law and other whites. In typical fashion, Richard laughs it off, but it clearly sinks in later that night. The actual appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t really given much more weight than any other scene in the film, and certainly when the decision is made, the reactions are happy but characteristically low key in the Loving household.
I go back and forth about who gives the better performance, but it’s not a competition, and depending on the scene, they trade off on perfect moments. Edgerton’s work is subtle, quiet, sometimes mumbled, head down—Richard Loving was a man defeated. When the couple is forced to declare themselves guilty for the first time in court, the look on Edgerton’s face is that of a man crushed. Negga plays Mildred as sweet and compassionate, but she also understands the magnitude of their case and believes that doing interviews and getting their story out into the world could help others in similar circumstances. She wasn’t a publicity hound, but she saw its value, and Negga puts her outgoing face and big eyes front and center when it serves and trumpets their cause.
At its core, Loving is a tribute to this couple. Director Nichols doesn’t just want to tell a story about a major Civil Rights case; he wants us to believe that if ever a couple deserved to be together without any challenges by the law to their union, it was these two. It’s a film that feels fragile but is strong. It’s a work about love that still manages to give voice to those who would deny them their commitment to each other. It goes beyond the standard biopic and cuts into the heart of this relationship to discover what made it so strong. We could all learn a thing or two about compassion, sacrifice and love this couple and this film.
To read my exclusive interview with Loving star Joel Edgerton, go to Ain’t It Cool News.