The Color of Love: Jeff Nichols' 'Loving' spotlights the interracial couple who changed U.S. law

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Events may have moved past the Loving lawsuit, but in the 1960s it was one of the most controversial cases to be argued before the Supreme Court. In Loving, a Focus Features release opening Nov. 4, writer-director Jeff Nichols explores the characters and events that led up to a momentous shift in culture.

"This is the first time I've ever dealt with anything based on a real situation and real people," he admits, talking by telephone from Los Angeles. "I grew up in Little Rock, went to Little Rock Central High, which was the site of the desegregation crisis in 1957. I thought I had a handle on civil-rights history, and I was kind of ashamed of the fact that I didn't know about the Lovings or their case."

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) grew up neighbors in Central Point, Virginia, "not even a town, just a road with a church and houses," as Nichols says. "But it was a very tight-knit, small community, with a lot of mingling among whites, blacks and Native Americans."

Richard and Mildred married in 1958, at the time breaking Virginia's miscegenation laws. Arrested, they were released on the condition that they leave the state. The Lovings moved to Washington, DC, for several years. But in 1963, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to ask for his help. As a result, two civil-rights lawyers took up their case. A year later, the couple and their three children moved back to Virginia, where they lived in hiding.

What impressed Nichols about the Lovings was the strength of their relationship. Watching The Loving Story, a documentary by Nancy Buirski, he was struck by how they behaved toward each other. That gave him a foundation for writing a screenplay.

"Not just in the documentary, but in all the archival footage we got access to, there's such a genuine quality to them," Nichols observes. "They did not ask for this, they didn't get married out of defiance or as a symbol or for a cause. They genuinely loved each other. And since their motivations were so sincere, it felt especially important not to misrepresent them. I did not want to put them in situations that wouldn't be honest to their personality."

Nichols notes that about a third of The Loving Story concerns their lawsuit against the state of Virginia. "But I decided to tell the story from their point of view. The case is fascinating, but it doesn't have much to do with the Lovings. But by focusing on them, I was painting myself into a corner in terms of having to find ways to show them in their daily life over the course of a decade."

In previous movies like Mud and Midnight Special, Nichols has been able to imbue everyday life with a relentless sense of foreboding. At times Loving resembles a desperate thriller. Each scene, each character, each gesture carries a threat. You wait for something terrible to happen.

"The funny thing is, a terrible thing was happening," he says. "When I look at the back half of this film, it's not built at all like a traditional narrative. There's no real climax. So I kind of zeroed in on this psychological threat that just had to be sitting on top of them. It's a threat that most people in the black community living under Jim Crow in the South had to put up with every day."

Nichols was reassured about his approach when he showed his screenplay to Peggy Loving, their last surviving child. "I went to her house to talk about it," he remembers. "She's much like her father, she doesn't speak very much, she plays it pretty close to the vest. I saw her flipping through the pages, I couldn't tell if she liked it or not. And then she looked up and she was crying. She said, 'They're all gone.' It just drove home the fact that these were people, they aren't characters in a movie, they are real people and they mean something to those who have been left behind."

The director believes this responsibility to the truth was shared by cast and crew alike. Everyone saw the documentary, and they also studied archival footage assembled from the period.

"Ruth was the first actress we auditioned for the part of Mildred," Nichols recalls. "You could tell immediately when she started the scene that she had been doing exactly what I had been doing—just poring over footage of Mildred. She had not only the voice down, the posture, but the way she held her mouth, Mildred's very specific way of pursing her lips. I just knew she was perfect."

Nichols knew about Edgerton's work ethic from directing him in Midnight Special. On that film he watched the actor training to hone his accent before each take, just as he did for Richard.

"The archival footage was our bible," Nichols says. "Everybody was running those images and sounds in their heads. So when we started, it was always 'Did that feel like Mildred?' 'Did that feel like Richard?’”

Nichols filmed on location, often in the same buildings where the original events took place. "We shot in the courthouse they were in," he says. "It really hadn't changed very much. The field he proposes to her, it was literally three minutes away from the house they were later hiding in. I know it's just a field, but think about the effect it had on us to work in the jail cell Mildred had to sit in, to be in the courtroom where they were sentenced. It really has an impact on everyone about how serious this is."

Nichols adjusts his visual style from film to film to suit the demands of his stories. In Shotgun Stories, he used what he describes as a "locked-off" camera for characters who had nowhere to go. In Mud, a Steadicam brought a flowing feel to a story about boys on a river.

For Loving, "a Steadicam has a fluidity to it that I didn't want," Nichols says. "What I wanted was this rigid, locked-off movement. When Richard walks, we walk with him, the camera doesn't really 'go' anywhere. It stays on the middle of his forehead, at the middle of his chest, it's just locked on it. Because he can't breathe, he can't go anywhere."

Nichols stages scenes so viewers will focus on a specific part of the frame, "muting" the background if necessary. He talks about a point when Mildred has been arrested for the second time. "I wanted that moment to be brief," he explains. "Mildred makes the decision to hand her baby over to her sister, so she kisses it on the head, hands it over, gets up, puts her coat on, walks out. She doesn't say goodbye to anybody, she doesn't hug anybody. Her mother just ever so slightly reaches a hand out and lets her brush past.

"What that says to me, rather than histrionics of 'Don't take her, don't take her, no, no, no, no'—which maybe happened, I don't know—what that says to me is everybody understands the inevitability of that situation, how powerless they are."

Nichols mentions another moment in the Loving Story documentary when the filmmakers ask Richard why he didn't resist the policeman arresting him. "He looked at the interviewers like they were freaking crazy," he laughs. "He says, 'No, I go with the law, they're the law.' It's so not a movie answer, it's not the kind of hero we're used to hearing. Because this guy knows they'll beat him to death right there on the spot, with no compunction."

Loving charts a subtle change in the couple's marriage. Richard dominates the first half of the film, taking charge, making decisions. Once they move to Washington, however, Richard withdraws, while Mildred evolves into a woman willing to fight anyone for her rights.

"This whole thing is an accumulation of moments," Nichols says. "It's not one of those movies where like, 'Well, this is what it means.' It's not really until that final image of them onscreen hits that I feel like you understand the gravity of everything."

The director feels Richard may have been confused about the involvement of the Supreme Court, believing that his marriage wasn't significant to the outside world. "Richard's attitude was, 'We're not bothering anyone, just leave us alone,'" Nichols adds.

"He talks about how they've been dealing with these lawyers for ten years now," Nichols says. "They're stuck, but time keeps moving. The weight of those years added up over time, we had to capture that, it all has to be set to this inexorable rhythm. Because that's the biggest part of the punishment, the time that was taken away from them."