Loving is the quietly powerful new film from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud). Most narratives “based on a true story” feel the need to shout their themes when a whisper would suffice. They wear their social causes on their cinematic sleeves. Instead, Loving is an exercise in nuance, telling its story with a careful glance. It locks eyes with its audience and achieves its artistic ends without rending its clothes or gnashing its teeth. There are no tearful monologues, no bombastic displays of emotion. Loving avoids depicting merely the issues at hand and instead focuses on the humanity of the people who were swept up in something far bigger than themselves, into a cause they truly had no interest in fighting.
The film is based on the real case from the state of Virginia where Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) were criminally prosecuted for being a married couple of mixed race. Virginia did not allow such unions, so the Lovings obtained a marriage license and tied the knot in Washington, D.C. After being arrested and jailed for their actions, they were given an ultimatum: serve the prison sentence mandated by law or leave the state of Virginia for 25 years. Simply wanting to live their lives in peace, the Lovings accepted their banishment, but they couldn’t find fulfilling lives away from their extended families and the comforts of home. Their return to Virginia sparked a legal battle that made its way to the United States Supreme Court where the landmark ruling struck down the criminalization of mixed race marriages.
So many films about legal breakthroughs focus on the procedural. Court hearings and eloquent arguments fill the runtime as the case progresses from one court to the next until the big showdown. The dialogue is heavily laden with legal doctrine and constitutional interpretations. Loving avoids these tropes and turns its attention to the relationship that sparked the legal furor. When Richard’s attorney asks him what he wants to tell the Supreme Court, he replies, “Just tell them I love my wife.” That single sentence sums up the entire film. At its heart, Loving is a tender, understated romance about two people who simply want the “privilege” of living together and rearing their children.
Joel Edgerton is almost unrecognizable with his blonde crew cut and false teeth. He plays Richard Loving as a simple, honest, hard-working man. Don’t confuse the word “simple” with simpleton. As portrayed by Edgerton, Richard is astute and discerning. He simply has no desire to have his life co-opted for the greater good. Edgerton conveys more emotion and information with his eyes than many performances manage with flowery speeches. Ruth Negga is every bit Edgerton’s equal, playing Mildred Loving with a quiet dignity that commands the screen. She has the on-screen presence of a Golden Age Hollywood starlet and would be well-advised to clear some mantle space when awards season arrives.
Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the notes you play that matter. It’s the notes you don’t play.” And the mastery of Loving is found in the paths not taken. Absent is the sadism so often associated with films about slavery and racism. Richard Loving isn’t beaten and threatened. He and his wife aren’t tortured and degraded in jail. Instead, they face something far more sinister: institutional racism. There is no single foe to be vanquished. The Lovings’ enemy was an entire way of life. Their struggle was as futile as fighting gravity. When Richard is arrested for the first time, the local sheriff matter-of-factly sums up the prevailing world view: “Son, you know better than this.” Intellectually, Richard did know that his choice of spouse was frowned upon by society. But, he followed his heart and inadvertently changed the country in the process.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.