Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving tells the story of an interracial couple struggling against persecution in rural Virginia in the 1950s. Does the film hit all the right emotional notes and continue Nichols’ winning streak or does it fall short of his previous films?
Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) are young and in love in 1950s Virginia. Then they commit the crime of getting married while white and black respectively. Of course, this ludicrous law they’ve broken is in their home state, but only a few hours north in Washington D.C.—where they officially exchange vows—their union is perfectly legal. They are arrested by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and harassed by others who do not approve of their marriage. They go to court and their lawyer, Beazley (Bill Camp), cuts a deal that allows them to go free, but they must leave the state and never return together for at least twenty-five years. The Lovings leave for D.C., but a complication arises when Mildred wants to have their first child in Virginia. Richard’s mother is a midwife and Mildred wants her to deliver the baby. Sure enough, the Sheriff returns to arrest Mildred. Beazley gets her off the hook with the local judge and the Lovings return to D.C. They live their lives peacefully, but Mildred longs for home and her family. Years pass and on the suggestion of a friend, Mildred pens a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The Lovings are contacted by lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), who wants to take their case on behalf of the ACLU. Cohen teams with a civil rights lawyer, Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), and they work to take the Lovings’ case to the Supreme Court.
The story of Loving is extremely touching as you watch these two people struggle against bigotry and a law that is completely backwards and asinine. It’s tough to watch the film without constantly shaking your head—in this day and age, the fact that blatantly discriminatory laws like this existed in this country is mindboggling. However, while you feel for the Lovings and sympathize with their plight, there is no narrative “black moment” that crystalizes everything. Granted, this is based on a true story and you never want to see filmmakers unnecessarily exaggerate what really happened, but while what the Lovings face is unjust and infuriating, all they really face is harassment. They are never in any real physical or life-threatening danger, but they are psychologically and emotionally terrorized—those are tough things to get across in a film, especially with people as reserved as the Lovings. What they dealt with should never be tolerated and I’m glad they stood up and fought for what was right, but again, most of the damage was internal and that lessens the dramatic impact of the film a bit. Their ordeal is terrible, just not very dramatic. Also, the Supreme Court case that the film builds up to, Loving v. Virginia, is largely ignored, only taking up about five minutes or so at the end of the movie. The story is mainly about Richard and Mildred, though, so the omission of the case isn’t terrible, but it would have been nice to have seen a bit more of the legal process.
The performances are what really carry Loving. The overall star here is Negga as Mildred. Her performance forms the emotional backbone of the film and she is the one who really fights for justice for the couple. Edgerton’s performance is much more understated. Richard is a man of few words and the last thing he wants to do is make a huge deal about how he and Mildred are being treated. His solution is that his lawyer should speak to the judge and the matter should be settled after that. He doesn’t want the limelight and just wants to be left alone so that he and Mildred can live and love each other in peace. Both Mildred and Richard are simple country folk, so Negga’s performance is also rather understated. The ramifications of what they’re fighting for are a bit bigger than they can imagine. Mildred understands the significance of their potential victory, but Richard sees it mainly on a personal level, so he comes across simpler than he really is. However, there is one scene that crystalizes how Richard sees the situation that is very powerful. Nichols regular, Michael Shannon, has a cameo as a Life Magazine photographer sent to cover the Lovings. The rest of the cast does a fine job too, but it really is all about Negga and Edgerton.
Overall, Loving is a touching film about an important moment in U.S. history. With his film, Nichols tries to keep the people at the center of the history in focus and he produces a very good film, but not his best. See it for the performances.