In “Loving”, based on Loving v. Virginia, the monumental 1967 civil rights case that overturned the prohibition of interracial marriage, writer/director Jeff Nichols becomes one of the precious few to find a way to render a historical drama without any of the obviousness and pomp that traditionally plagues the genre. “Loving” is not merely resistant to big speechifying, it is resistant to aesthetic bombast, forgoing swelling strings, fancy orations and white light streaming in windows that bathes characters so as to render them divine. Instead it adopts a refreshing matter of fact process akin to the workmanlike brick laying that one of its two main characters, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), does for a living. I don’t know if “Loving” is a Great Movie, per se, but it’s about as well done as this kind of movie can be.
Nichols conspicuously forgoes a traditional introduction to Richard and Mildred’s (Ruth Negga) relationship. In the first scene, we learn she is pregnant, which prompts their marriage, but this is not a marriage of circumstance. They really do love each other, which the companionable performances of Edgerton and Negga, who so fluently interact in one another’s presence, evinces with such grace. We don’t see how they got together just as we don’t see them wrestling with what it means in a broader social context for them to be together; “Loving” merely introduces them as they are. That’s not to suggest they don’t feel the societal repercussions as they catch stares from black and whites alike, because they do, but that to them this seems beside the point. Until, that is, they go up to Washington to wed, return to Virginia and get thrown in jail.
They are told by the Judge (David Jensen), a character that Nichols shrewdly writes not as some exaggerated villain but an exhaustible man set in his ways, that to stay married and avoid jail means they must leave Virginia for a period of 25 years. They do, moving in with Mildred’s relatives, occasionally daring to make an undercover of night foray back home, getting by, until an ACLU lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) gives them a call about taking their case up the chain to the Supreme Court. It’s about doing right by the Lovings, absolutely, but it’s also about getting a horrible bit of racist policy off the books, which you suspect could have been done a tad earlier than 100 years since the conclusion of the Civil War except that American-styled progress is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really slow.
In another movie, Cohen would have been just as crucial to the plot as Richard and Mildred. When Bernie says he’s not really that familiar with constitutional law, it would have been cue for a law book reading montage, or something, but Nichols has no real interest in the finer points of the lawyerly crusade. Instead, in a story born of Loving v. Virginia, Loving v. Virginia becomes a mere subplot, an ineffable reminder that Nichols feels no annoying need to hammer home the stakes, other than the marriage license that Richard nails to the wall, that even a landmark civil rights case spawns from someplace small, like Lake Itasca sending the Mississippi on its winding journey.
This is befitting the central couple. Richard is almost exclusively inward, not particularly excited about all the media fuss that goes along with their court case, happiest when he’s at the dinner table or laying bricks, and Edgerton embodies this character’s demure mannerisms with all his silent might. Mildred, on the other hand, is more aware of the significance of what’s coming them from their challenge, intrinsically reminding us that the plight of Black Americans has always been different and so much harder than that of White America, which Negga only allows to come out in the smallest ways, in the politely excited manner that she repeatedly tells her lawyers “We appreciate you” or in the bashful way she lets a Life photographer snap her photo at the kitchen sink. And when the big moment comes at the end and the case is tried for the Supreme Court justices, Negga makes clear that her character stays behind with Richard who has no intention of going, not because she’s some dutiful Stepford Wife but because she loves him and believes they go together.
That moment precipitating the Supreme Court showdown, which is only seen obliquely, is also seen in the trailer. It is Richard saying: “You tell the judge, I love my wife.” Even in the trailer Edgerton’s restraint on this line is admirable, but it packs even more of a wallop in the full context, of everything that has come before and everything that is still at stake. He loves his wife. She loves him. It’s never really supposed to be that simple, certainly not in 1960s America, and yet in Nichols’s telling, it absolutely is.