Maybe it’s the fault of Happy Days. Maybe it’s the fault of a generation growing up on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. For any number of reasons, there’s this nostalgia for the America that existed between the end of World War II and the escalation of Vietnam, as if the combination of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the ensuing civil unrest and unpopular war of the late ‘60s was the moment the nation lost its innocence. I hate to break it to you, but America was never innocent. One of the uglier chapters of American history is the subject of the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, Loving, which tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who was prosecuted for their marriage until taking the case to the Supreme Court. It’s a stark reminder that our nation’s past sins aren’t in the distant past.
Living in Virginia, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) works as a bricklayer, working with an unmatched speed and efficiency. He spends his free time working on cars in order to get them ready for drag races. Richard is in love with Mildred (Ruth Negga), and the young man takes his pregnant girlfriend to Washington, DC so they can be married. Richard has purchased an acre of land for him and his bride. It seems as if they’re on the verge of a quaint, idyllic life together. Except the local authorities have gotten wind of Richard and Mildred’s marriage, which is illegal under anti-miscegenation laws of Virginia. They raid their home and lock up the husband and wife, leaving the pregnant woman behind bars longer than her white male counterpart. On trial, they’re presented with a plea deal – if they won’t dissolve their marriage, they can move out of Virginia for no less than 25 years or face a prison sentence. Reluctantly, they move from Virginia to Washington, DC, where they raise their three children in an urban environment.
Yearning for home, Mildred writes a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes the letter on to Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer working for the ACLU. Cohen sees this as a case that is destined to go to the Supreme Court, one that would overturn all anti-miscegenation laws nationwide. However, it puts the Lovings in the national spotlight with new crews and magazine reporters publicizing their case. Richard shuns the newfound spotlight and fears retribution.
The most remarkable aspect of Loving is the assured tone that Jeff Nichols gives to his film, one that never gets into the overwrought territory that defines so many films with Oscar ambitions. There’s a deep emotional content to the story, but Nichols never allows it to descend into scene after scene of teary-eyed monologues about love and what’s right. Even the oppressors, embodied by the nasty Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), aren’t presented as cartoonish supervillains. It’s a smart decision from a storytelling perspective as it doesn’t allow the players of systematic racism to seem antiquated, but rather people in the service of an evil belief that are working to preserve an unjust system which is all that they’ve ever known. It’s the kind of system where a pregnant woman could be jailed for an illegal relationship and nobody bats an eye.
The two lead actors of Loving keep the film grounded with subtle performances that emphasize the emotional core of the story. Edgerton plays Richard Loving as a man that plays his emotions close to the vest, only letting his guard down when the emotional stress facing his family becomes too much to hide. As Mildred Loving, Ruth Negga is much more open with her emotions, especially the feeling of homesickness that afflicts her when she’s forced from rural Virginia. Edgerton and Negga play off each other in such a naturalistic manner that their subtle gestures between each other say more than any wordy monologue drenched in tears ever could.
As the story of Loving spans nearly a decade, Jeff Nichols does a marvelous job in keeping the story efficient in its unfolding. In the same way Nichols avoids overwrought monologues, the writer-director also avoids trying to tell too much of the story – there’s no time spent on the courting of Richard and Mildred nor is there time spent on contextualizing the racist laws in place. Nichols focuses entirely on the human story at play and how a system based on racism robs everyone of their basic humanity.
Loving is also a beautifully shot movie, with Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone blocking their shots that amplify the film’s central connection between Richard and Mildred. There’s also a texture to each location that Stone’s cinematography brings forth, with the urban centers of Washington, DC having a grittier appearance than the sweeping fields of rural Virginia. Combined with the deft editing of Julie Monroe, Loving has a visual language that underscores every aspect of its highly emotional story.
Jeff Nichols has now released two excellent movies this year, the other being the wonderful sci-fi film Midnight Special, and continues to prove himself to be one of the most exciting young filmmakers to emerge in some time. Loving is what a prestige pictures should be, timely and heartfelt in its emotional and historical content without relying on emotional manipulation to be effective. Nichols’ film is able to hit so many different feelings for the audience while watching, including moments of sweeping romance, heartbreaking drama, and intense suspense. Loving tells the story of the first step towards marriage equality and serves as a tragic reminder that we’ve come a long way since then, but we as a nation still have a lot of work to do.
A wonderful drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols, Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and their persecution for their interracial marriage with emotional clarity, historical resonance, and narrative efficiency.