It’s difficult, leading up to any election — and especially this one — to not see everything, including pop culture, through the lens of politics. But even by pre-election standards, Loving, about the couple at the center of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, would seem to be obviously political.
So the marvel of Loving is that it’s not really a triumphant legal drama; it’s more like a romance that happens to have a Supreme Court case in the mix. That makes sense: We already know the outcome of the case before it begins, and so the task of the movie is to tell a story that’s true but still surprising. In making the political personal, the movie pulls off an even greater feat: infusing an easily politicized story with complexity and quiet passion. The result is beautiful.
The Lovings’ story happens against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, but is far removed from its events
Loving is director Jeff Nichols’s second film to be released this year. (The first was Midnight Special, a quiet sci-fi story about family and belief.) It’s also his second to star Joel Edgerton, who, with bleached hair and a dense Virginia accent, plays Richard Loving, a white bricklayer who invited the wrath of the state law when he married Mildred Jeter, a woman of African-American and Native American descent.
Ruth Negga plays Mildred, and the pair turn in two of the finest, most understated performances of the year. The Lovings are people of few words, so Edgerton and Negga make every look, every gesture, every intonation count.
Loving is remarkably restrained in its storytelling: From its first moment, it communicates to viewers that these two are in love — no need to show us how or why, that’s not really the point — and a lot about their characters. As they sit on a porch at twilight, Mildred tells Richard, with some hesitance in her voice, that she’s pregnant. He takes in the news, thinks about it, and tells her with a smile that it’s "good."
We already know why she’s hesitant — not because they’re unmarried, but because she’s black and he’s white. But soon they make plans to drive to the District of Columbia, where interracial marriage is legal, and marry. Not long after, the local police show up in the dead of night to Mildred’s house, where the couple is asleep, and drag them off to the local jail. Richard’s bail is posted the next day, but the sheriff won’t allow him to visit or post bail for his wife, since the county won’t recognize the marriage. Mildred, heavily pregnant, is in the jail all weekend.
The Lovings are eventually forced to move to DC to stay clear of more jail time. The baby comes, and then two more. They try to carve out a life for their family in the city where their marriage is recognized and their children aren’t considered illegitimate, but Mildred becomes more depressed. They’re unhappy, far from their roots and their families. They’re living against the backdrop of the civil rights movement — they can see the March on Washington in 1963 from their home — but it, and any hope for resolution, seems extraordinarily far away, as if it’s in another world.
Then one day Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy about their situation, not expecting much return. But she gets a call from a lawyer at the ACLU. The Lovings’ case has potential. And the ACLU would like to represent them for free.
Loving v. Virginia continues to be relevant
Nichols was raised in Arkansas and lives in Texas, and he’s made a career of telling family stories set mostly in the American South, beginning with his extraordinary 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. Loving feels like a natural choice for him: an intimate story about people who, despite being famous, didn’t even attend their own Supreme Court hearing.
There were a lot of ways to tell the Lovings’ story, which has been the subject of one narrative film (which Mildred Loving herself apparently found to be far from reality) and one documentary, The Loving Story, which won a Peabody in 2012. The case itself, Loving v. Virginia, has been cited in many rulings since, including the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. The Obergefell decision mentioned the Loving ruling nearly a dozen times.
Because of the case’s ongoing judicial significance — and because "miscegenation" is still a term that gets used in 2016 — the temptation to make Loving a film that’s mostly furious about its subject must have been high. A decade ago, the film might have garnered skepticism from critics for being too obviously uncontroversial a topic; today, in the age of the alt-right, it seems uncomfortably relevant.
Yet against all odds, Loving probably will play too slowly and quietly for some audiences, especially anyone who goes in expecting a rousing, rallying, justice-oriented courtroom movie. Most of the film is made up of glances and silent moments.
Loving develops its argument along with its characters
Its very slowness is Loving’s strength. The film attaches itself to its political and judicial relevance gradually, in step with its characters, particularly Mildred. She recognizes with more alacrity than Richard the possibility that achieving justice in their case isn’t just a private matter, just a way for them to live in peace, but has implications for other couples who are like them. She warms to the media attention as a result.
But it takes time. And at first, the movie, along with the couple at its center, is reticent to blow the relationship out of its natural proportions. After all, the whole point of a ruling like Loving v. Virginia is that Richard and Mildred aren’t remarkable people. They’re just two people who fell in love and want to spend their lives together, to build a little house on a patch of land in rural Virginia. They aren’t symbols. Their marriage isn’t iconic. They’re just the Lovings.
And yet, being the Lovings — being in that place at that time — meant they were caught up in something larger than themselves: the struggle for civil rights, for freedom to live according to their beliefs, desires, and common humanity. The film picks up steam as the Lovings become part of that broader movement, however reluctantly. It’s a strong technique, one that isn’t as "Hollywood" but more respectful and even realistic.
Loving’s biggest accomplishment may be eschewing too much of a rah-rah-we-won attitude after the case is decided in the Lovings’ favor, which serves to underline how little has changed. In one scene, Richard sits with three black friends, one of whom tells him the truth: Before, even though Richard was as poor as his black friends, he was still a white man. But now he knows what it is like to be black — to be constantly under suspicion, watching over his shoulder for law enforcement, jumping at the possibility that someone’s coming for him.
That thread is drawn subtly throughout Loving, but it’s the most political and probably the most relevant statement the film could make. So much has changed. So much is different. But real freedom, Loving suggests, is still out there on the horizon. And things only change through ordinary people.