Film Review: Loving

Writer-director Jeff Nichols goes for a measured, low-key telling of how a mixed-race married couple almost inadvertently became the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case that finally succeeded in abolishing all anti-miscegenation laws in the US.
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One of the most remarkable things about the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning all remaining state laws banning interracial marriage was that, even at that time—an era of explosive racial unrest and heightened media attention on the struggle for civil rights—it remained a relatively unknown and unsung achievement.

It was not until 2011, in fact, that filmmaker Nancy Buirski came across the story of Mildred and Richard Loving and decided to make a feature-length documentary about the real-life interracial couple whose love for each other—and whose simple desire to marry, raise a family and live in peace—helped rid the nation of the anti-miscegenation laws that had been on the books in at least 16 states (mostly in the South) until a mere 50 years ago.

Among those who were intrigued by Buirski’s documentary was Colin Firth—yes, that Colin Firth, the Oscar-winning British actor—who was then in the process of teaming with London-based Ged Doherty to form a production company, Raindog Films, and they decided to make Loving one of their first feature film projects. Looking for a creative team who’d be sensitive to the culture of the American South, they approached Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of two successful indies, Mud and Take Shelter, who at first agreed to work only on the screenplay, but eventually took on the direction as well.  

This backstory of how Loving came to be is, in some ways, more interesting than the final product. Yes, of course, it’s interesting that this ordinary couple, Mildred (an excellent Ruth Negga) of African-American descent, and Richard (Joel Edgerton), a young white man, met, fell in love and conceived a child before confronting the fact that they could not legally marry in Central Point, Virginia, the small, racially integrated town in which they’d both been born. It’s interesting that in 1958 they had to go to Washington, D.C. (with her father) to get married and that, one night shortly after their return to Central Point, the local sheriff (Martin Csokas) and his deputies burst into their bedroom while they slept and hauled them both off to jail. And it’s certainly interesting, as well as disturbing, that they were subsequently indicted for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and that the local judge sentenced them to a year in jail—unless and until they agreed to leave the state and stay out of it for the next 25 years.

Loving shows how Mr. and Mrs. Loving and their child are forced to move to D.C., where they have two more children and Richard continues to work in construction. Over the next five years, though, they’re never happy living in the tough, impersonal city and Mildred has never given up her dream to raise her kids in the more welcoming atmosphere of rural Virginia. So, at the suggestion of a relative, she sits down and writes a letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, telling him of the circumstances preventing her family from returning to their home state. Luckily, the letter gets forwarded to the ACLU, where an attorney, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), accepts the case pro bono. He is at first inspired by Mildred’s enthusiasm to find a legal solution to their problems, but he runs into a brick wall with Richard Loving, who wants nothing whatsoever to do with courts and judges.

By this time, the Lovings have actually moved back to Virginia, settling in a county where the sheriff and judges are more lenient, but Mildred cannot truly relax until the threat of imprisonment is removed. So she contacts the ACLU again, and another attorney (Jon Bass) comes onboard and together they get Richard’s reluctant okay to proceed with the case—appealing the Virginia judge’s decision all the way to the Supreme Court. The situation then begins to get public attention, prompting LIFE magazine to send a photographer, Grey Villet (Michael Shannon), to take some candid shots of the Lovings at home—and these naturally attract more interest.

All of the above is true, and it is faithfully depicted in Loving. Perhaps too faithfully, for director Nichols obviously decided at the outset not to tart up his film with cinematic excitement. There are only cursory discussions between the Lovings themselves about the legal matters so greatly affecting their lives and, except for the welcome and enlivening appearance of Michael Shannon as the LIFE magazine photographer, there’s little hint of media interest in the case. We don’t even get a glimpse of the arguments before the Supreme Court, and we’re not told the wording of Chief Justice Warren’s decision that “under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” In fact, the Lovings learned about the decision in an unheralded and quite undramatic phone call from their lawyer—as we see in the film.

Obviously, Nichols made a quite valid choice to tell the Lovings’ story strictly from their viewpoint, and to depict Richard and Mildred (both now deceased) as exactly the kind of plainspoken folk they appear to have been. Their love for each other was/is supposedly the motivating factor here, but most movie audiences need a little zing in our love stories; we like to see lovers who make frequent eye contact and who sometimes act as if they truly love each other. Nichols seems to have directed Joel Edgerton with particular restraint; the real Richard Loving may have been an inarticulate man, but in a scripted dramatic movie he should do something to elicit audience sympathy. Otherwise, we might as well be watching the original documentary.

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