“Loving” is a deceptively simple movie about the complexities often hidden deep beneath the calm surface of simple appearances.
It’s a quiet, subtle film that loudly exposes the mirage of black or white: black or white choices, black or white situations, black or white people. Seldom in life is anything as simple as black or white. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has made a beautiful movie that shows us when we fail to appreciate the full spectrum of grays, we miss some important details. We also suffer consequences.
Or, as in the case of Richard and Mildred Loving, we might stumble into changing American history.
Nichols tells the true story of Richard Loving, a white man in rural 1950s Virginia who falls in love with Mildred Jeter, an African-American/Native-American woman. Not only was this socially frowned upon in some Virginia circles, but it was also illegal in the state – a Draconian, disturbing remnant from slave-era legislation.
Hidden away in their tiny rural community however, the Loving’s simple country life is idyllic at first. Sun up, sun down, Richard does his masonry, Mildred spends time with her family, and their immediate circle is one of acceptance and love. The small-town enclave protects them. Or so they thought.
Mildred becomes pregnant, and Richard takes her to Washington D.C. to get married, where it is legal. When they return, the small town safety becomes very dangerous when someone doesn’t approve. A simple anonymous phone call to the police reigns terror down on their lives, and sets in motion a complicated set of events that changed history, when the Lovings eventually take their case for marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967.
As Mildred Loving, Ruth Negga has very little to say by way of lines, but her expressive, delicate doe-eyes speak louder than any two-paragraph soliloquy. Her portrayal of a woman who may appear to be simple, brews with an inner life that bubbles to the surface as she serenely navigates the injustice done to them. Joel Edgerton departs from his usual knuckle-dragging movie villains and gives the hard-working, big-hearted Richard Loving a palpable vulnerability.
This isn’t a courtroom drama; we see only about two minutes inside of a courtroom. Nor is it a pandering Oscar feel-good movie or a mushy love story. “Loving” is an important history lesson told beautifully, wisely, without propaganda or hyperbole. Simply. But underneath, it is a wild undercurrent of horrifying oppression, stark bravery, blind love and ultimately, a legal victory that led to interracial marriage being declared constitutional.
Loving v. Virginia was also cited repeatedly during the Supreme Court rulings over same-sex marriage, which ultimately resulted in a victory for same-sex marriage advocates when the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that state bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional.
In the end, for the Lovings, it was right vs. wrong, the ultimate "black or white," that won the battle, but their fight was anything but simple. This film describes their journey, the price they paid, and perhaps the debt they are owed.
3 stars (out of 4)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton
Rated: PG-13 for mature themes
Running time: 123 minutes
The lowdown: A white man in 1950s Virginia illegally marries an African-American woman, and their fight to legalize their marriage takes them all the way to the Supreme Court.