'Loving' Is A Remarkably Modest, But Never Condescending Movie
Director and writer Jeff Nichols films Loving in long takes with a rock-steady camera. He shows the lush fields and the modest white frame homes of people who do farm and construction work in rural Virginia in the 1950s. The movie never gets arty or self-consciously important. The style fits Nichols’s characters who, to say the least, are people of few words. Yet at times, the film reaches moments and images that are profound, and the movie gives a remarkable sense of how the grand principles of law affect the lives of actual human beings.
The film recounts the story of Mildred and Richard Loving. In 1958 they marry. He is white, she’s black and because white/black marriage is against Virginia law at the time, the couple drive to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony. But at home in rural Virginia, they’re breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation law. Late one night, the police break into the couple’s home and haul them off to jail. It then takes almost 10 years for the case to wind up in the Supreme Court of the United States, which finally rules that Virginia’s law violates the Constitution.
But Loving is not just about the law; it’s about two unassuming people who love one another and simply want to live their lives as a couple with children, and the movie is quietly remarkable for that.
Loving doesn’t show the typical events of racial melodramas or Civil Rights pictures. A rope and an ominous pickup truck don’t pan out. There’s just one courtroom scene, and that’s in a municipal court, where the Loving’s small town lawyer persuades his friend the judge to let them off with a suspended sentence, provided they move out of state. The Supreme Court scene shows the two attorneys from The American Civil Liberties Union as they begin their arguments, but then cuts away to Mildred, played in brilliant near-silence by Ruth Negga, sewing and ironing while her husband (an elegant Joel Edgerton), works on a car outside.
The Loving’s aren’t stupid people. They’re a rural couple in the mid-1950s who don’t know the world outside their immediate place of dirt roads, simple houses and activities centered on work and home, with a little bit of drag racing. They have dance parties – with terrific music by the way – in the homes of friends. Is their world segregated? Not at work or drag racing. Out where the Loving’s live, they avoid most of it. Their marriage – race mixing, as Virginia sees it – sets it off.
It’s hard to tell how they relate to the legal questions. Mildred and Richard know they have to live in Washington, where they hate the noise and traffic. They want to go home – to the less jittery, pastoral world where they grew up. Mildred watches the great Civil Rights march on Washington on television, as if it’s the moon landing, even though she lives in the same city. A friend tells Mildred to write to then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes her letter on to the ACLU, and out of the blue an ACLU attorney shows up. The legal-speak from the lawyers looks like it passes right over the heads of the Loving’s. They don’t get the complexity of appeals and all that.
What they do get viscerally is the sanctity of living the lives they choose to lead. They’re not crusaders. They don’t want the honor of appearing with the lawyers in the hallowed Supreme Court. They’re not abstract thinkers. And for Loving, this remarkable understated, never condescending movie, this is the fundamental point about the law. This case, one of the tremendous landmarks in the growth of liberty in America, drew the Court’s opinion that marriage is a basic right. In just the past year that principle was applied again with respect to same-sex marriage. But for the Loving’s, it simply means that they are free to live together, raise their children and love one another. Just that.