Review: “Loving”

4 out of 5 stars.

Loving was their name, and they were persecuted for doing the exact same thing.  In “Loving,” writer/director Jeff Nichols tells the true story of the landmark 1967 court case Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage.  It’s a story that Nichols tells with remarkable yet moving intimacy, with his talented cast breathing extra life into every scene.

“Loving” opens in 1950s Caroline County, a rural town in Virginia that’s more integrated than the rest of the state.  Therefore, inhabitants of the town aren’t especially fazed by the relationship between Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a black woman.  They get married in Washington, D.C., knowing that interracial marriage is illegal in Virginia, but that doesn’t stop the local police from arresting them as soon as they find out.  To avoid imprisonment, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave the state and move to the city.  But as the years go by, they realize that the city isn’t where they want to raise their family, and move back home, ready to face the consequences—this time, with lawyer Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) of the American Civil Liberties Union backing them, believing that their case can go all the way to the Supreme Court, potentially overturning anti-miscegenation laws across the country.

There’s nothing especially remarkable about the way Nichols tells this story.  In fact, it’s pretty straight-forward.  But Richard and Mildred were a quiet, simple couple, so that simplicity in the story-telling method is fitting.  They were never fazed by the frenzy caused by their case; they only wanted the right to be able to live together and raise their children where they wanted to.  Nichols doesn’t focus on the bigger picture; this isn’t a courtroom drama, and we barely get a sense of just how important Loving v. Virginia is to the nation at large.  He keeps the story centered on Richard and Mildred, allowing us to fully witness the extent of their affection for each other, which isn’t obvious at first glance.  Richard doesn’t talk a lot, and he certainly doesn’t approve of the media circus surrounding their court case.  Mildred is quiet but strong; she is the one who gets the ball rolling, who contacts the lawyer, who tells Richard they have no choice but to move back home.  But at the same time, she doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to; when Richard says he doesn’t want to go to the Supreme Court for the hearing, she stands by him.  When Richard meets with the police, knowing he will be arrested, she joins him.

Much of the greatest of this movie rests on those actors playing Richard and Mildred.  Edgerton cuts a stoic figure, and his Richard is gruff; but there are moments when he puts an arm around Mildred or just stays close to her without even thinking about it, as if he physically can’t be away from her any longer than he has to.  In what is likely the film’s greatest moment, Cohen asks Richard if there is anything he wants to tell the Supreme Court.  Richard responds, “Tell them I love my wife.”  Edgerton delivers the line subtly, but that makes it all the more effective.

Meanwhile, Negga is brilliant as Mildred.  Her large, expressive eyes communicate so much; she just has to look at Richard, and it’s instantly obvious how much she loves and needs him.  She appear frail, but she is by far the strongest character in the movie, thanks to the quiet strength Negga gives each line she utter and each movement she makes.  The rest of the cast is great too, including Michael Shannon, who briefly appears as Grey Villet, a Life Magazine photographer tasks with taking pictures of the couple around their house.

Nichols bookmarks the film with a house.  At the beginning of the movie, Richard shows Mildred a plot of land he bought, with the intention of building a house for her—a plan that was put on hold after their arrest and subsequent banishment from the state.  The film concludes with Richard finally being able to return to building that house for his wife, a house that, as the end credits state, she lived in for the rest of her life.  It’s a testament to the endurance of their love, and why this story is so important.  Sure, Nichols could have made a film that more thoroughly explored anti-miscegenation in the country at large.  But as this story is still a timely one to an extent, being able to witness the intimate relationship between Richard and Mildred, as well as their friends and family members, gets across the message of acceptance and loving all the more effectively.

Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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