‘Loving’ is a Quiet and Effective Portrait of Civil Rights Pioneers

It was only last year that the Supreme Court of the United States decided in favor of the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that finally legalized same-sex marriage in this country. The outcome had gained an air of inevitability as public opinion shifted in the years leading up to the case, but it was far from a certain outcome. Court decisions are based on legal interpretation and past precedents, and Obergefell v. Hodges was peppered with references to an earlier case, Loving v. Virginia, decided in 1967. That ruling overturned anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country that prevented people of different races from marrying. Jeff Nichols‘ new film, “Loving,” draws a portrait of the couple at the center of that decision, which continues to be an essential tool in the fight for human dignity today.

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are quiet people. The film opens with Mildred announcing she’s pregnant, but there isn’t the celebration you might expect. Mildred doesn’t seem to know what to expect until a small smile breaks across Richard’s face as he says “Good.” Communication seems to be mostly nonverbal for the two of them, particularly with Richard. It almost seems that he might have some mental disability at first, but it becomes clear that he just prefers to keep to himself, unless he’s relaxing with family or having some drinks with friends.

Shortly after Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard proposes and buys a plot of land near their families’ homes to live. As Nichols (who also wrote the film) presents it, there’s no discussion of race between the couple. Richard has grown up socializing with African-Americans, so he doesn’t seem to think of the prejudices of his neighbors. Still, he knows that they will have to drive to Washington, D.C., to get a marriage license instead of staying in Virginia.

There’s a heavy fog that hangs over “Loving” — at any moment, Richard and Mildred’s idyllic marriage could be shattered by violence. When police officers break into their house at night and find them sleeping in the same bed, it’s meant to be a dehumanizing act of revenge against a couple who resisted local prejudices, but the affair could easily have led to bloodshed. When the Lovings move to an isolated house far from anyone they know, any approaching car is a possible harbinger of destruction.

Years after Richard and Mildred lose their initial case, Ruth writes to the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, who passes on her note to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) takes on the case for the ACLU, but his enthusiasm for the case is at odds with the Lovings, who don’t want to put themselves at risk of being rearrested. Kroll, best known for starring on “The League” and his ecstatic sketch comedy show, “Kroll Show,” is convincing in a dramatic role, particularly when he provides a bit of comic relief about his relative lack of experience. But he also sometimes uses a wide-eyed expression that fits perfectly with his comedic characters, but is a bit too broad for this more naturalistic role.

Although “Loving” is describing historical events, there’s often very little sense of history. Part of this is an astute observation: Richard and Mildred don’t discuss the Civil Rights Movement at all because its protests were happening in large urban areas, far away from the isolated, rural life that they led. It’s only after being forced to move to Washington, D.C., that Mildred starts to pay attention and sees her letter to the attorney general as a viable path forward. The Lovings don’t think that those protests apply to them.

But in addition to the lack of historical context, there’s also no real sense of time in “Loving.” The couple were married in 1958, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court heard their case. Nine years passed, but the film doesn’t attempt to convey that time, or the struggles of living away from home, or in constant fear, for so many years. Their multiplying children as used as a shorthand for the passage of time, but it carries no weight. Nothing changes with the characters except that new kids pop up occasionally.

But these concerns aren’t enough to prevent “Loving” from being a perceptive glance into the lives of Richard and Mildred. Edgerton and Negga are masters of tiny gestures—they convey with a glance or a caress what their characters are incapable of conveying with words. Lesser actors would have made these characters just seem inert. It’s also a credit to Nichols that he avoids the temptation to give Richard and Mildred a big, emotional speech. That’s not part of their vocabulary, but they have other ways of making themselves heard.

“Loving” has the misfortune of being released in the same year as “Moonlight,” a much more radical portrayal of black life in America. This film can’t match the sheer audacity of that film, but it remains an important statement. The film’s biggest success lies in avoiding the standard clichés of a historical drama. Loving v. Virginia isn’t a relic from the past, and “Loving” knows that it’s desperately contemporary.

Watch the trailer below:

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