In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were married in Washington DC and went back to their home in Virginia. But, that state has a law on the books that forbids interracial marriage on pain of imprisonment. The couple must move to DC or be convicted of "cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth." They miss their home and family and, with the help of the ACLU, put up a legal battle to legitimate their marriage that will go all the way to the United States Supreme Court in “Loving.”
Writer/director Jeff Nichols takes a curious and subtlety engrossing tack with his interpretation of what would become a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court, striking down state laws against interracial marriage. He could have gone after the sensational aspect of the Loving’s story with dramatic courtroom battles overt racism and hate. Instead, he concentrates on the lives of the two people who would actually be the center of a dramatic courtroom battle – here entirely done off screen.
This concentration on the personal lives of an interracial couple who just wanted to be left alone to live their lives together gives this a fresh, and timely, look at the race issue. In 1958, miscegenation laws prohibiting such marriages were on the books in 16 states – all Southern. When word got out about the black/white couple, legally married under Federal law, they were arrested for cohabitation between persons of different races. Their choices were conviction and a year in prison or voluntary banishment from living together in Virginia for 25 years.
The true story follows the Lovings over the ensuing years before the Virginia court decision where they, especially Mildred, are not allowed to live among her close knit family and in their home. Eventually, the separation and its anxieties grow too great and, casting caution to the wind, the Loving family secretly moves back to their home. They make the transition peacefully until they are found out by the law. This time, though, the Lovings are not going take it lying down and, when approached by a representative of the ACLU, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), they agree, Richard reluctantly, to take the battle to the courts.
Again, the courtroom drama and wheeling and dealing are not seen. Instead, the film concentrates on the lives of Richard and Mildred. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give full and meaningful character to their subjects and give distinctive performances in their grounded roles. Mildred is a person of quiet strength, used to prejudice and willing to give all out of love for her husband and her family. Hers is a positive, upbeat character who faces life’s adversities with that strength. Richard is her opposite - sullen, taciturn and not trusting in the law. He, too, is used to prejudice but handles it in a far more sullen manner than Mildred. The two have a terrific chemistry and it shows.
“Loving” is both a love story and the subject of that landmark SCOTUS decision in 1967. The couple endured great adversity, and it is depicted well, and, in the end, overcame that adversity in a big way. I give it a B+.
In 1958, the small town of Central Point, Virginia, was an unusually integrated community, but when Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, "Black Mass"), a white laborer, wed his pregnant black sweetheart Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga, AMC's 'Preacher') in D.C., Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas, "Noah") wasted no time invading their home to arrest them for their interracial union, unlawful in the state of Virginia. Banished, the couple moved to a relative's in D.C., but Mildred was unhappy raising their children in the inner city. After writing to RFK, Mildred was contacted by ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll, "I Love You, Man"), who took their case all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled on the side of "Loving."
After a miss earlier this year with "Midnight Special," writer/director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter") rebounds with his intimate, restrained take on the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. This is a film that plunges us into the everyday life of a couple who never sought the spotlight, only wishing to be able to live their lives in peace in the town that was their home. They suffered, but did not rebel, at least until one of their three children was hit by a car while playing in a D.C. street (he was only banged up) - this was the catalyst that led Mildred to write the letter than would eventually change everything for not only them, but interracial couples across America.
Richard Loving was a bricklayer and sometime mechanic who worked on drag racing cars with his best buddy Raymond (Alano Miller, TV's 'Underground') and we meet him, his arm protectively draped around Mildred, at such an event, the happy local crowd a mixture of black and white faces. Edgerton's Richard is a hard-working man of few words, but when Mildred tells him she is pregnant, his delight is obvious. In a scene reminiscent of last year's "Brooklyn," he takes Mildred out into a field and begins to describe the view from a non-existent kitchen window. He's bought the acre for their future, a lovely proposal of marriage.
Mildred's sister Garnet (Terri Abney, "Triple 9") is upset that the family was not there to celebrate her sister's D.C. wedding, but the couple is warmly embraced. But others are not so tolerant. When Richard rubs his wife's expanding belly in a local shop, the black clerk's disapproval is written on her face. Even Richard's mother (Sharon Blackwood, "The Choice"), the local midwife, tells him he 'shouldn't have married that girl,' despite her affection for her. Then the roof caves in. As the couple is spooned in sleep, Brooks and his men barge in to arrest them in the middle of the night. Richard is bailed out, but threatened with violence should he attempt to do the same for his wife, huddled in a cell in her nightgown. His anguish is palpable, but it is Mildred's father (Christopher Mann, "Michael Clayton") who is finally allowed to release her after the weekend has passed. Richard engages local lawyer Frank Beazley (Bill Camp, "Midnight Special") to appear with them in court and Beazley gets the charges dismissed - if they agree to leave Virginia for the next twenty-five years.
In D.C. in the home of kindly Jeter cousin Laura (Andrene Ward-Hammond), the years pass by, Mildred making a home within a home, the couple gifted with three children (they slip back to Virginia so Richard's mom can deliver their first, but quickly run afoul of the law). After a tense bit of cross cutting between Richard narrowly avoiding an accident at work as their son plays stickball on a busy street, Mildred decides she's had enough and they move back to a remote rental in Central Point, just hoping to keep their heads down. Richard has no faith in Bernie Cohen, but Cohen is gunning for a Supreme Court ruling and engages constitutional lawyer Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) to help strategize. Mildred again takes the bull by the horns when Cohen suggests a request from Life magazine will give their case favorable publicity. Photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon, "Midnight Special") captures that quiet moment that personifies the Loving couple.
Nichols doesn't go after big moments here - even the Supreme Court scene ends after Cohen's opening remark. What he's done instead is presented a normal family and left his audience to deduce the madness of their condemnation. The production brings us right into the humble homes of 1950 and 60's rural Virginia and the close, multi-storied houses of D.C.'s inner city neighborhoods. But as strong as Nichols' direction and production are, the film wouldn't work without Edgerton and Negga, both giving quiet performances coming from very different places, Edgerton a strong, silent immovable rock, Negga almost birdlike, her strength coming from the will to try and make a change. In a film world which almost always glamorizes its real life subjects, they both share an uncanny resemblance with the people they're portraying, but more importantly, they project a deep marital bond (sadly, we learn Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver just seven years after the Supreme Court ruling. Mildred, in her 80's still misses him. 'He took care of me.'). "Loving" is a beautiful film.
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