There is the Great Man theory of history, in which it’s anomalous individuals with massive destinies that dictate the course of world events. And there’s the more sociological approach which suggests that mass movements and prevailing political currents are how change occurs. But trapped in the no man’s land between those two opposing ideas — he probably tinkering with a car engine, she maybe flouring up some scones — are civil rights pioneers Richard and Mildred Loving, at least as imagined and carefully homaged by director Jeff Nichols in his quiet gem, “Loving.” As polished a film in terms of craft and performance as Nichols has ever made, the director’s trademark considered intelligence shows itself in how subtly it reworks and refreshes the tired conceits of the historical biopic, while still remaining a conventionally appealing and, yes, Oscar-y example of the genre. Like its protagonists, the gently progressive “Loving” is an unshowy kind of hero.
The facts of their case are a matter of historical record now: the white Richard Perry Loving, in the eyes of the State of Virginia in 1958, committed a crime when he married the black Mildred Delores Jeter in Washington D.C. and returned to live with her in their home county of Caroline, Virginia, as man and wife. Under threat of a prison sentence, they were ordered to leave the state and their homes and families, and banned from returning there together for a period of 25 years. And the word “together” is key — this law wasn’t about disenfranchising Richard or even denigrating Mildred, it was about quashing their togetherness, their relationship. It was about literally hating love. Almost a decade later, their case came before the Supreme Court and resulted in the landmark decision that struck down the anti-miscegenation laws nationwide, established marriage as a civil right, and allowed them to return home, now with three children in tow.
There is an obvious, weeping-on-the-courtroom-steps version of this story, but that is not where Nichols’ interest lies (the film has two very brief country court scenes but can in no way be called a courtroom drama). Instead, he consistently turns away from the legal pyrotechnics, and refocuses back on Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) and their powerful, unbreakable, unquestioned love for each other. Essentially, the “this is what we’re fighting for” rhetoric so often used in the stories of civil rights breakthroughs, is shown here, not told, and what we’re fighting for is small and fundamentally good: the right for two people who love each other to be able to live in the place they call home, with the people they call family. As far as stakes go, it’s not the most dramatic legal battle ever fought — no one is killed, no one dies — nor is it even the most dramatic Civil Rights story of that turbulent era. But Nichols, aided by his exceptional lead actors, is so radically sure of where the heart of this story is, and invests us so sincerely in it, that there is no moment at which we do not feel, really feel, the cruelty of the Lovings’ predicament.
Edgerton’s blunt decency is perfect for the role of Richard, who is ever the one more reluctant to engage in a protracted and public battle, and who has no ambitions save to protect and provide for Mildred, and live among the African-American community of Caroline like he has always done. And with Nichols a master at conveying character information even through absence, the very fact that the whole first half of the film unfolds without anyone making reference to the fact that Richard is white, is a grandly subtle way of normalizing the world we see onscreen. The racist sheriff (Marton Csokas) may sneeringly suggest that Richard’s “mixed” heritage is responsible for his current situation — “your blood don’t know what it wants” — but Richard knows exactly what he wants: a simple, honorable life spent with the woman he loves.
“I can take care of you” he repeats helplessly to Mildred at one point, but it is Mildred whose resolve will be largely responsible for the creation of that space where Richard will be free to take care of her. And Negga’s Mildred is simply mesmerizing — she can make your breath catch with the subtlest of gestures. Early on, Richard brings her to a field near her childhood home, and asks her what she thinks of it. She is nonplussed and a little dismissive, but after he tells her he has bought it, and proposes, there’s this extraordinary moment when she looks around again at the undistinguished scrub of this little acre of land, and you see her fall in love with it. (Watch that scene below). Then they are forced to leave Virginia and set up house in the city, and even after years away and her third child now toddling, Mildred’s homesickness for the Virginia countryside is a real and palpable thing. And later, a surprise telephone call from ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (refreshingly played by Nick Kroll as ambitious and pragmatic and not simply a white knight crusading to the rescue) unfolds with Mildred’s response being polite, but cautious and burned-before, until he explains that the help he is offering would not cost the Lovings any money. Nothing about her demeanor changes, but hope flares.
And throughout it all, Nichols’ peerless command as both writer and director gives the story color and life and texture. Michael Shannon as LIFE photographer Grey Villet is a small cameo character who feels so well-drawn it’s like he has a whole movie to himself. Adam Stone‘s wonderful photography catches perfect little details: the glare of the sun when Richard emerges from jail, the cloud of steam belching from a smiling pot on the stove, the sad patch of dying grass by the doorstep of their DC house that is such a paltry trade-off for a prairie. Scored to David Wingo‘s sensitive orchestral compositions and occasional jazzy hits of the period, the film is so polished that it is smooth to the touch, yet it is anything but unoriginal and feels anything but anonymous. The best possible version of this kind of film — not a radical reinvention of the period biopic but an immaculate, restrained revision — “Loving,” aka the ballad of Richard and Mildred, is a heartfelt and strangely convincing testament to a truth that sometimes sounds naive: love wins. [B+]