In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple, were convicted of violating anti-miscegenation laws. Tired of a 25 year ban on their living together (and to avoid further prosecution), the pair left rural Caroline County Virginia to live legally in Washington D.C. But the city was not where they were meant to be, and the couple spent nine years attempting to return to rural Virginia. The court case that went to the Supreme Court resulted in a landmark civil rights decision that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage: “These statutes deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” This was in 1967. (The Brown v. Board of Education had passed in 1954!)
This important and still shocking story inspired an HBO documentary in 2011. Director Jeff Nichols’ wonderful new film, Loving, wisely draws on facts and even some dialogue from that earlier piece.
Nichols focuses on the couple’s honesty, integrity, and commitment to one another as they struggle to raise three children in a hostile environment. Richard Loving was a bricklayer, a devoted father and husband who was man of few words. “I’ll take care of you,” he says to Mildred with calm assurance. Richard is dumbfounded at the unjustifiable legal dictates. “We don’t mean to hurt nobody” he declares.
Meanwhile, Mildred, respectful of her husband and aware of his reticence, takes charge and moves things forward. After 7 years away, she wants to go back to their home in Virginia. She writes a letter of complaint to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. Richard acquiesces to his wife’s judgement in most legal matters. In one scene, Richard’s brother-in-law, admiring his fortitude, tells him: “Well, ain’t nobody gonna tell you what you can’t do.” In the next scene, Richard calls Mildred away from an interview: “No more of these reporters” he demands. “Richard, we have to do this” she replies and, without a fuss, she returns to the questioning. Richard lights another cigarette and gazes off to the horizon; he eventually joins her and watches from the sidelines when she tells the interviewer: “We are doing this for everybody.”
Joel Edgerton (Black Mass, Warrior) as Richard Loving and Ruth Negga (Preacher) as Mildred supply effectively minimalist performances: in this film, each scene unfolds patiently. Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress raised in England, has mastered the Southern dialect. She also studied hours of Ruth Loving’s interviews and brings a graceful physicality to her detailed portrait. Edgerton sports a blond crewcut and gazes out, puppyish and befuddled, from under heavy lids. He appears at home mixing with black folks, though intimations during some of the small talk, and a smattering of imagery, hint at the racial tensions of the era.
The pressures on the couple are insistent but never overwrought. Charged with upholding antiquated laws, the police are crass rather than brutal. One day in passing, Richard’s terse mother, a midwife, confesses to her son: “You shouldn’t have married that girl.” She is not racist so much as a simple woman frustrated by difficult circumstances. There is no need for elaboration. Most of the time in this film the characters go about their lives amidst lush rural landscapes and hard scrabble interiors. Tiny gestures and brief exchanges evoke the demeaning tensions of the times – there is no need for gunshots, car chases, and rocks-through-the-window.
Life magazine assigns a photographer, Grey Villet (Michael Shannon, a Nichols regular), to shoot a spread of the Lovings at home in anticipation of the landmark Supreme Court hearing. What he finds are not rabble-rousing protesters but Mildred doing the dishes, Richard fixing his carburator, the couple lying peacefully on their couch laughing at the Andy Griffith Show. He pauses from his shooting, touched by the elegance and simplicity of these two everyday heroes.
In their way, the Lovings are as iconic a couple as those in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. In that painting a farmer (actually Wood’s dentist) stands — pitchfork in hand — gazing directly at the viewer. His wife — stern as a rock — gazes at him. It is a domestic American archetype. The man appears in charge, holding us off, maintaining his ground. He probably doesn’t talk much. His wife’s strength is obvious, and she has her eyes firmly fastened on him. With simplicity and grace, Nichols updates that stereotype. Loving celebrates the passion and courage of two people who, by doing what was right for them, established justice for generations to come.