Loving, a new film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, dramatizes the famous case in which a Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, challenged the state law against interracial marriage. History supplied its own poetic justice through the last name Loving, so that this landmark Supreme Court case is known as Loving versus Virginia. I had previously seen a very good HBO documentary from 2011 called The Loving Story, which I also recommend. That film focused on the legal case, for the most part, and the principles involved. But Nichols, who has excelled in previous films portraying poor rural Southerners in realistic and insightful ways, here focuses on the central relationship of Richard, a white bricklayer played by Joel Edgerton, and as they used to say back then, his colored wife Mildred, played by Ruth Negga. Of course the eventual legal battle emerges in the course of the story, but Nichols very wisely refrains from letting this become a grandstanding message movie with inspiring speeches and so forth.
When the film opens in the late 1950s, the two are already in love, and life in Caroline County, in northern Virginia, does not at first glance fit our image of the Jim Crow South. We first see Richard in the midst of organizing some drag racing between a group of African American friends with whom he seems to blend in, and a group of white guys. If there’s any tension, even with Richard and Mildred openly kissing and hugging, it’s beneath the surface, not expressed. We don’t know exactly how Richard escaped the segregation mindset, but we’re given a little bit of back story later on. His father is deceased; his mother is a midwife, which might dispose him to be more respectful of women. Mildred Jeter has a very strong family bond with her parents, sister, and brother. When she tells Richard she’s pregnant, his response is joyful, and then he asks her to marry him. The fact that they have to drive to Washington D.C. to do this is just assumed as the way things are. What they don’t foresee is that someone tells the county authorities, and one night the police break down their door and haul them off to jail. Thus begins an ordeal that involves them eventually having to move to D.C., where all three of their kids are born. But Mildred is a country girl—she doesn’t like the way city life is affecting her kids—and she yearns to get out of the city and closer to her folks.
One of the beautiful things about the film is how it stays true to the simplicity and directness of these two people. They’re not looking to make history—they just want to be together. Joel Edgerton is fine portraying the strong, silent husband, and especially showing how much shame he feels about the suffering his wife is forced to go through. And Ruth Negga is outstanding as Mildred—this woman is straightforward and practical, a gentle soul trying to live the life she deserves. The film assumes the same humility as its main characters. These are ordinary people who just happen to inspire extraordinary events through simple acts of love and loyalty. By the time Loving reached its finale, modest in its style and mood to the end, I was in tears, realizing how something so small and personal can change the lives of so many.