Directed by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Will Dalton and Sharon Blackwood.
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were married in Washington DC. Interracial marriage in their home state of Virginia was illegal and, on their return home, they were arrested, imprisoned but also spared more jail time if they stayed out of the state for the next 25 years. Back in Washington, a civil rights lawyer took up their case and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Based on true events.
Jeff Nichols steps out of his comfort zone of fiction for Loving, the true story of an unassuming couple who changed the constitution of the United States. Richard and Mildred Loving made their first on-screen appearance in the 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, which the director draws on heavily for his dramatized version, using some of its actual footage of the couple at home.
Their surname couldn’t have been more a gift to the film maker in telling their story, one of defeating racial discrimination. In this case, it was Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that decreed the interracial couple couldn’t live as a married couple in their home state. A huge battle, one that resulted in a momentous decision, but one with very little actual confrontation. It’s all done in a quiet, dignified and modest way and everything is shown through the eyes of the couple at the centre of the maelstrom.
Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a bricklayer with a love for tinkering with cars. Not a man to waste words, he has an attitude to life that brings everything down to basics. Why should they be allowed to marry? “We ain’t hurting nobody.” He’s not going to the hearing at the Supreme Court, and Mildred won’t go without him, so what message should his lawyer give? “Tell the judge I love my wife.” For him, it’s that simple. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is the more astute of the two and, in her own quiet way, the bolder. It’s a letter from her that gets the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) lawyer involved in their case and she’s more willing than Richard – but only just – to talk to the press. She’s also the more afraid of the two.
The performances from Edgerton and Negga are breathtaking. Edgerton has a remarkable knack for disguising his own intelligence when playing somebody less articulate – he did it previously for Nichols in Midnight Special – but this isn’t a man without emotion. We eventually see it surface towards the end of the film, confirming what we always suspected lay beneath his gruff, almost monosyllabic exterior. Negga is equally good as Mildred, wide eyed and vulnerable at times, but with nerves of steel under her slight frame. The essence of their story, however, is their complete devotion to each other. In her last interview, Mildred described Richard very simply: “He took care of me.” They were just a couple who loved each other, wanted to be together and raise a family. The shot taken by Life magazine photographer Grey Villet (Nichols regular, Michael Shannon) as they watched TV together shows exactly that.
Any overt hostility or aggression to the couple is restrained, although it’s never far from the surface. The local sheriff (Marton Csokas) upholds the law, breaking into their house in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping and taking them away, Mildred heavily pregnant and in her nightdress and dressing gown. A group of white men at the drag race watch Richard and Mildred together with ill-disguised disgust. Richard’s own mother expresses more than a little reservation about the couple getting married. More sinister is the truck that seems to follow Richard home to their isolated house in the country. Or the brick left in his car, with a page from the feature about them in Life magazine wrapped around it. He never finds out who was behind either, but that paranoia never goes away.
There’s no big speeches, no barnstorming, this isn’t a courtroom drama and the Lovings don’t go to the Supreme Court hearing. When Mildred receives the phone call telling her the verdict, we can only faintly hear what’s being said to her, but her reaction makes it very plain. These aren’t showy people. Their ordinariness and simplicity make them special and their story is anything but ordinary. It’s inspirational and deeply moving.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★