A profound human rights drama, Loving gently probes its leading players, allowing their actions to demonstrate their feelings.
In his first four films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special), writer/director Jeff Nichols created a series of strong, brave characters, most notable for their quiet restraint as they deal with momentous events in their lives. In Loving, the characters are similar, though they must deal with a test to their faith in each other over a period of years.
Construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) is in love with Mildred (Ruth Negga), and the fact that he is white and she is black doesn’t matter a whit to either of them. Early on, he proposes to her by showing her the land he has purchased in rural Virginia, where they both live. Their families are not thrilled, but they are country folk and not inclined to butt into anyone else’s business.
It’s 1958, though, and state law doesn’t allow mixed-race marriages. Richard and Mildred must travel to Washington, D.C. to make things legal, and after they return to Virginia, they must keep their marriage quiet to avoid arrest. That lasts only until Mildred is several months into her first pregnancy, when Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) wakes them up one morning and tosses them into jail.
From there, Loving traces their marriage as it grows stronger over the years with the addition of three children, even though they are forced to move to Washington D.C. to avoid jail time. Theirs is a resilient relationship; as Richard becomes ever more insular and Mildred’s outgoing inclinations become ever more evident, it strengthens rather than weakens their marital bonds.
Eventually, the Lovings cross paths with a civil rights attorney and an opening to full legal recognition of their marriage beckons. Richard prefers to be left alone, so it’s up to Mildred to kindly guide them into position so they can live legally on the land that they love, near their families in Virginia.
Through it all, continual opportunities arise for fireworks to shoot off. Nichols makes certain that the real-life stakes are ever present, but resists the temptation to pump up the action. By eschewing grandstanding dramatics, Loving is all the more affecting, getting to the heart of the matter in memorable fashion that lingers.
Edgerton remains a brooding, withdrawn character, which places the responsibility on Negga to give the drama its piercing heart. Negga is fully up to the task, negotiating the delicate, masterful feat of revealing the small, gradual changes her character makes, slowly unveiling a full-bodied, very strong woman who is quietly determined to get what she knows she needs — and deserves.
It’s not as if racism suddenly went away after the Loving case. But Loving serves as a reminder of the small victories won and those that are still to be won.
The film opens at select theaters in Dallas on Friday, November 11.