“Loving” is an unpretentious film about unassuming real people, but don’t let that mislead you.
Just as Richard and Mildred Loving ended up overturning the status quo and making American legal history, so this feature on their lives by writer-director Jeff Nichols turns out to be a film of quiet but quite significant strengths.
Nichols, responsible for “Mud,” “Take Shelter” and the underappreciated humanistic science fiction epic “Midnight Special,” has gone in a different, more historical direction here. He’s made an involving socially conscious drama about the interracial couple whose marriage, illegal in their home state of Virginia, led to the unanimous 1967 Supreme Court ruling that racist anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.
But “Loving” is hardly a legal drama rife with attorney strategies and courtroom scenes. It’s concerned not with public lives but private ones, with how it happened that two ordinary people, distraught over being trapped for years in the coils of a pitiless system, came to feel enough was enough.
Nichols was born and raised in Arkansas, and his Southern background intensifies his familiarity with the material. He’s also helped greatly by his two stars, a luminous Ruth Negga, memorable in John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” who is transcendent as Mildred, and Australian actor Joel Edgerton, whose involvement in the role of Richard grows as the film progresses.
“Loving” is based in part on Nancy Buirski’s moving 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story,” which includes potent excerpts from footage shot of the couple by ABC News in 1965 and 1967 as well as expressive black and white photographs taken for Life Magazine by Grey Villet.
Villet is played in the film by Michael Shannon, who has been in all of Nichols’ features. Similarly, the core of the director’s team, including but not limited to cinematographer Adam Stone, production designer Chad Keith, costume designer Erin Benach, composer David Wingo and editor Julie Monroe, have reunited here, giving the result an enviable ease and cohesion.
Using that earlier documentary as a template, and with physical and emotional authenticity in both acting and look as his goal, Nichols and his team have made “Loving” as accurate as they could without making it feel like a copy of reality or compromising its considerable emotional impact.
That impact starts with the opening scene on a back porch in deeply rural Virginia in 1958, when Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant and he smiles and says “good.” Neither of these individuals is a big talker, but both actors are expert at conveying feeling with body language and facial expression, and at no point in the film do we doubt that these people love each other very much.
The Lovings’ tiny hamlet of Central Point is something of an anomaly in the Virginia of the time, an area where population patterns have developed in a way that racial equality is taken for granted.
Though his burr haircut and blank stare make bricklayer Richard look like an archetypal redneck, scenes of hanging out with Mildred’s family and being the mechanic on a drag racing team demonstrate that he is genuinely color blind, someone who fits in with all races because it never occurs to him that he wouldn’t.
The state of Virginia, however, does not feel that way about race, and a few weeks after the Lovings return from being married in Washington, D.C., they are rousted at home at 2 a.m. by the police and arrested. When Richard points to his marriage license, framed on the wall, he’s curtly told by the sheriff, “That’s no good here.”
Sheriff Garnett Brooks (intensely played by Marton Csokas) and others in the Virginia legal system are not portrayed as drooling bigots but rather as individuals who genuinely believe that this dreadful system of racial separation is what God mandated.
Richard, baffled and horrified, is imprisoned overnight before he can be bailed out, and his wife spends five terrifying days in prison. (“Loving” was shot in the same jail in Bowling Green, Va., where the real events took place.)
Though the Lovings could have been sentenced to a year in prison for “a crime against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” a deal brokered by their lawyer suspends the sentence if they agree to leave the state and not return for 25 years.
Feeling they have no choice, the Lovings depart for Washington in January 1959 and move in with Mildred’s cousin. Children are born, life takes twists and turns, but raising a family far from her own never sits well with Mildred.
Finally, in 1963, after the March on Washington and a pep talk from her cousin telling her “you need to get you some civil rights,” Mildred writes a letter that results in conversations with two young ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop.
As played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass, respectively, these lawyers are hardly saviors. Very young and without much experience, they barely know how to proceed. And the Lovings, for their part, are not interested in being zealots or martyrs for a cause. Eager to live back home and raise their children, they just want the whole thing to go away of its own accord. Which it will not.
Moving without being excessive, “Loving” makes some of its points by indirection, like a shot of the Lovings watching Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Though not a word is said, the implication is clear: We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t let these people live together in peace. It is a conundrum that is still with us, one that “Loving” beautifully illuminates.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Playing Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles.