Based upon the famous case of Loving vs. Virginia, a landmark moment in the civil rights movement in America that invalidated laws preventing interracial marriage, Jeff Nichols’ Loving is far, far removed from what that premise might suggest. Nichols avoids all the expected cliches that this would normally include, and delivers an emotional, political and handsomely crafted period drama.
Instead of making a court room drama, the likes of which we are very used to seeing come out of Hollywood, Nichols instead chose to focus on the emotional core of this case: the love between the couple at its centre – Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga). The loving couple – their name would be far too on the nose if it weren’t for the fact that this is based on real life events – are shown early on to share a tender and incredibly warm relationship, and when Mildred falls pregnant Richard quickly proposes. But Virginia doesn’t allow mixed race couples to marry, and so the pair must elope to Washington.
But not long after returning to Virginia they are arrested, charged, and told that they will face prison time unless they move out of the state for a period of twenty-five years. They must leave behind their family and the life that they love – particularly the countryside in which they have grown up – to move to the city. As they arrive in Washington and pull up in front of the house in which they will be living, Mildred looks down at a patch of weeds on the pavement, the only piece of greenery to be seen. It’s a tender and deeply sad moment that Nichols smartly plays relatively subtly and lets the audience drink in its significance without being patronised with exposition.
Ruth Negga’s performance also tells a story that no amount of words could ever cover, her expressive eyes frequently conveying so much emotion and telling us so much about what this strong women thinks. And whilst Richard Loving may be a man of few words, a stoic character who sees things plainly and as they should be, Edgerton does a superb job of showing just enough cracks to let us into the character and understand the emotion beneath the surface. A late moment in which he tells one of their lawyers what message to give the Supreme Court is a phenomenally simple and beautiful line, which Edgerton delivers in a way that convinces that he has been living with this injustice for years.
Nichols tells the pair’s story in an understated and simple manner, so much so that it’s not until the later scenes that the weight of emotion and political significance really begins to creep in, and there are only a few minutes of courtroom scenes, despite the film lasting two hours. This is a film about the love between these two people though, and the cruel way in which they are kept apart.
Nichols wisely realises that we don’t need to see the lawyers and judges arguing and making a case for and against these two people in love being allowed to stay together; some truths are self evident.