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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024