The irony of this movie’s title was not lost on writer-director Jeff Nichols. It inspired him to craft a screenplay about a landmark civil rights case that spends almost no time on marches, demonstrations, or confrontations. That’s because the couple who made interracial marriage legal in the United States were named Mildred and Richard Loving. Nichols decided to focus on them and their devotion to each other in this quietly moving film. (He also felt that the facts of their case were covered quite thoroughly in Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story.)
Arkansas-born Nichols knows the South, as he has proven in such wonderful films as Mud and Midnight Special. He assumes that we also know enough about it to understand the volatility of a mixed marriage in Virginia circa 1958. Yet in the community where Richard Loving grew up, blacks and whites intermingled without much notice. The film opens with Loving (an almost unrecognizable Joel Edgerton) at a stock-car rally surrounded by dark-skinned friends. Marriage is another matter, however, and even Loving is smart enough to travel to the District of Columbia to legalize his relationship with Mildred (Ruth Negga). That’s when their troubles begin with local law-enforcement officials in Virginia, resulting in their expulsion from the state.
Loving is an unusually low-key drama about a decent but taciturn man and his quietly assertive wife. They don’t speak much, and when “they” do, she does most of the talking. It is Mildred who refuses to raise her children away from her home turf and family and hand-writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy that sets their case in motion.
As a history lesson, Loving may fall short because most of the life-making events occur off-screen. Nichols is more interested in depicting the life of a working-class couple and their unshakable bond, in spite of legal threats and the intrusion of publicity. He also effortlessly captures the look and feel of the period.
The film’s strength lies in its vivid depiction of the leading characters. Edgerton may not be talkative but he is real; it’s tantamount to a master-class in underplaying. Negga is the discovery here, as the Ethiopian-born, Irish-raised actress fully embodies a young woman of the South who understands the importance of family and the need to protect hers at all costs.
Disarmingly simple and deliberately slow, Loving takes us to a specific time and place in America’s recent past and introduces us to a man and woman whose only crime was loving each other and trying to raise a family. They wound up making a difference for millions of Americans, and bore a name that’s easy to remember because it defines what they meant to each other.