During a year in which so many serious-minded movies have addressed America’s racial divide, we might be tempted to soft-pedal Jeff Nichols’ historical dramatization Loving as just another awful-but-true story about racism in the bad old days. Don’t give in to that temptation. Thanks to remarkable performances by actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, in the able hands of writer-director Nichols, we witness a profound act of courage by two otherwise meek and mild people caught in the hatred net. How they coped, what they felt, when they were told being in love with each other was not good enough.
They’re the salt of the earth. Construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a soft-spoken white man, and his equally low-key sweetheart Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), an African-American woman, want to be married before the birth of their first child, but that’s impossible in 1958 Virginia because of the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. So they drive to Washington, D.C. for a hasty wedding, then return to their home in Central Point, Virginia. Whereupon the police pull them out of bed in the middle of the night and jail them, setting in motion a long, groundbreaking legal struggle that would eventually result in the elimination of raced-based restrictions on marriage, even in the segregated South.
That’s the historical outline, but inside the tight-knit little family — the Lovings eventually had three children — is where the movie settles in and spends most of its time. Australian move-over Edgerton, usually typecast for action (Black Mass, Warrior, Animal Kingdom), is almost unrecognizable as bricklayer Richard, with his towhead crew cut and mumbling humility. He’s so deep in character he practically disappears. Richard’s mother (Sharon Blackwood) is a country midwife seen by the white establishment as one step up from “colored.” Mildred, backed by her supportive family, is the one who really stands up for the family when she and Richard are forced to leave the state rather than dissolve their marriage. TV actress Negga (Preacher) is the portrait of steadfast dignity as Mildred, especially when she agrees to let an ACLU lawyer (comedian Nick Kroll, in an inspired bit of casting) take their case to the Supreme Court. The expressions on Mildred and Richard’s faces as they summon up their courage tell us everything we need to know about them.
Writer-director Nichols, an Arkansas native, has built a rock-solid socially minded filmography telling tales of the South and the colorful, marginalized folks who live there, in such laid-back dramas as Shotgun Stories, Mud, and Midnight Special. Mildred and Richard, their families, the iron-jawed Virginia lawmen, their attorney Frank Beazley (Bill Camp), the guys at the drag strip where Richard and his brother-in-law (Will Dalton) race, and even the Life magazine photographer, played by Nichols regular Michael Shannon, all have a stamp of authenticity on them — something many directors can’t buy at any price, but seems to come easy for Nichols.
Loving is a first-class actors’ picnic, with the advantage of having real-life meaning in the always-thorny arena of American race relations. Mildred and Richard Loving, true to their name, trust that their devotion to each other can overcome all obstacles, and are proved right. “Tell the judge I love my wife,” pleads Richard. That’s all there is to it.