[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Loving opens this weekend in limited release.]
You’ve seen this story before: period setting, emotions running high, progressivism triumphing over backwards-thinking prejudice. But you haven’t seen it like this. With Loving, the fifth feature film from Take Shelter and Mud filmmaker Jeff Nichols, the true story of an interracial married couple just trying to live their lives in 1950s Virginia mostly follows the beats you’d expect from a film like this. However, thanks to an incredibly specific script and nimble direction from Nichols, the story plays out in quiet fashion, eschewing any major plot twists or sweeping music-filled moments of heartache or triumph. Instead, Nichols zeroes in on the lives of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, taking a far more specific approach to this story, which in turn makes the film’s impact all the more genuine.
But Nichols isn’t simply satisfied taking on the issue of interracial marriage. Throughout Loving, the filmmaker tackles subjects like masculinity, the civil rights movement, and feminism in ways so subtle they may not register with all who view it. This anti-Lifetime Movie of the Week approach results in a far more real and emotional watch, even if it lacks the drive or fist-pump moments of more traditional fare.
The film begins in the year 1958, as Richard and Mildred Loving are happy to learn that they’re pregnant. In an act of pure love, Richard subsequently asks Mildred to marry him, and the two travel from Virginia to Washington D.C. for the ceremony, as interracial marriage is against the law in their home state. When they return home, however, they are promptly arrested for living under the same roof, and Richard is admonished for “knowing better” than to marry a black woman. In a stark example of the racism that persisted throughout the 50s and 60s, Richard is bailed out of jail the following morning, while the pregnant Mildred must remain in her cell throughout the weekend, until the judge is in on Monday morning.
Richard and Mildred plead guilty and are subsequently given a “lenient” sentence, whereby they must either dissolve the marriage or move out of state, not to return any earlier than 25 years. They reluctantly move to Washington D.C. and over the course of the next five years, have three more children, but the distance from her family—and her home—takes a toll on Mildred. Spurred by watching Martin Luther King Jr. on television, she takes it upon herself to write a letter to Bobby Kennedy about their situation. The ACLU subsequently takes an interest in their case, seeing this as a path towards federally overruling any laws that ban interracial marriage, but their rising profile brings troubles of its own.
There is a version of this movie that exists that is possibly far more manipulative, twisting the true facts of the case in favor of more “dramatic” moments. Nichols isn’t interested in that. Instead, he revels in the slow path that the Lovings take, and at times the film’s quietness and pacing can give the feeling that you’re simply watching two people live their lives, not barreling towards a landmark Supreme Court case. That’s life, of course, but the movies demand the pace of a locomotive, moments that tell you when to cry via music cues, and intensely dramatic scenes of abuse and injustice. All these things abound in Loving—forward movement, emotional moments, and scenes of nail-biting tension—but they are crafted in unexpected ways. Nichols knows the movie that audiences have seen before, and he’s determined to offer something different, and in turn something far more moving.
Edgerton’s intensity is put to tremendous use as the quiet and brooding Richard Loving, who simply wants to make his wife happy, take care of her, and live their life. But it’s Negga who truly shines here in a breakout performance. The actress telegraphs so much with a simple look, and the quiet persistence of Mildred is so calm it takes a while to realize she’s the one driving this train towards the landmark court case. It may have been enough to simply see how this couple’s love resulted in equality for all interracial couples, but Nichols wisely addresses the inherent dichotomy in the Lovings’ relationship.