With Loving, writer/director Jeff Nichols (writer/director of Midnight Special) takes on an historical court case, one which has been dealt with on film before, in documentaries (The Loving Story, 2011) and a previous dramatization (Mr and Mrs Loving, 1996), but never with such a deft touch – or with such accuracy: Mildred Loving, a litigant in the case, complained that the 1996 drama bore little resemblance to the events of her actual life.
The case in a nutshell: In 1967, Richard Loving, a resident of rural Virginia, plans to marry his pregnant sweetheart, Mildred. The two have been close since childhood, and their respective families are neighbours and friends. Their only difficulty is that they cannot legally marry in the state of Virginia. Richard is white and Mildred black, and in 1967, the state still had anti-miscegenation laws in place which made inter-racial marriage a felony. The couple cross the border into the nearest state, Washington, DC, to be married, thinking their problem is solved; but when they return to Virginia, they are arrested. Their prison sentence is suspended, provided the couple leave the state and do not return.
The couple, expecting their first child, endure a painful departure from their close circle of family and friends, and move to Washington. Distant relatives help them find a home, and Richard obtains work as a bricklayer; but Mildred is homesick and unhappy in the unfamiliar city environment. When they secretly return to Virginia for their child’s birth, they once more narrowly escape prison, and return to Washington.
The next few years are skimmed over. The Lovings have two more children and continue to be a united couple, but both feel themselves to be in exile. On the advice of a relative, Mildred contacts the American Civil Liberties Union, which assigns the Lovings a volunteer lawyer to study their situation and find a way to contest the legal ban on their marriage. When no progress is made over many months, the Lovings stealthily move back to Virginia, glad to be at home and near family, but continually on their guard, never knowing when the police may become aware of their residence in Virginia and arrive at their door.
When the legal team finally decides on an approach and begins to move forward, Richard and Mildred diverge a bit in their reactions. Mildred believes their efforts to be valuable and important, and co-operates fully with both the legal advisors and the press who cover their case. The very reserved Richard is uneasy with the publicity and has less interest in the larger historical implications of their case; he wants nothing more than peace for his family. Nevertheless, he supports Mildred and accepts her hopeful participation as their case moves on to the Supreme Court.
The well chosen cast make the Lovings sympathetic and their situation moving. Joel Edgerton does well as Richard Loving, a good but uncomplicated man, baffled by his circumstances but determined to protect his family at all costs. Even more outstanding is Ruth Negga’s subtle portrayal of the quiet but resolute Mildred Loving. Both actors have received multiple acting award nominations for this film.
In spite of the significance of the case, the film avoids making the story a political one, beyond the obvious theme of two people against an implacable and unfair legal system. Its focus is on the Loving family, their relationship, and the impact of the law on their lives. The many families in Virginia, and in fifteen other states with anti-miscegenation laws, who would be impacted by their legal case are all but hypothetical, made real only by the Lovings’ example. Even their eventual success, when the Lovings win their case and invalidate all racial restrictions on marriage nation-wide, is transformed from a public triumph to a private moment: Mildred hears of the win by telephone in her kitchen, faint sounds of cheering coming through the receiver as she calmly takes in the news, then walks outside to inform her husband. Ultimately, Loving is about a marriage – which (as the film makes clear) it certainly was, recognized by law or not.