For anyone who doesn’t think that our US Constitution is a living, breathing document, this film is a must. For those of us who do believe, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” reminds us of why it should remain seen as one.
This is a slow, quiet film. Words are not so important. What is key is family and the rural and urban divide, and, of course, love. The true story of Richard Perry and Mildred Delores Loving is as soft and unassuming as they are. The film begins with Mildred (Ruth Negga) in profile. Negga plays shy and thoughtful with her eyes and the set of her mouth. Her surprise when her white boyfriend acknowledges her pregnancy news with his simple “good” is as understated and as emotional as a performance can be. This Ethiopian-Irish actress is perfect in her role : grounded, perceptive, patient, and truly loving.
The Welsh Joel Edgerton is the second half of what will become the first interracial marriage of Caroline County, Virginia. He is dyed blond and buzzed and perfectly cast. As Richard Loving, he is a mason who, because of Mildred, will ultimately lay the foundation for the national eradication of all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. It is hard to believe that I was in college when this landmark Civil Rights case was won. Nichols’ film gives viewers the backstory of the ruling “Loving vs. Virginia” (1967).
The 1950 rural South has teenagers who love rock and roll, racing car engines and kissing. This setting still leads the responsible Rich to purchase an acre of land and dream of protecting and providing for his family. Dee and Rich drive up to Washington, DC to be married. Dee’s father, Mr. Jeter, accompanies. Sequences of a sewing pattern being selected , a bassinet being lined, and hens roaming about follow. Dinners at the Jeter house are portrayed as warm and familial.
It does not take long for a night of terror to disrupt the Loving couple. The sheriff and three deputies break into the Lovings’ dark bedroom. Flashlights glare as the pregnant Mildred and her husband are arrested and placed in separate jail cells. Their marriage is seen as unlawful in Caroline County.
Rich bails himself out, but is not allowed to free his wife. ” A sparrow is a sparrow and a robin is a robin. Get one of her own people to bail her out.” , Loving is told. There is no communication between husband and wife. Dee waits patiently in her chenille bathrobe for two days as Rich sits outside the jail, taciturn in his promises. Mr. Jeter posts his daughter’s bail, and Rich hires a lawyer.
Frank Beasley ( Bill Camp ) is the lawyer, who tells the Lovings to plead guilty and the judge will suspend jail time; otherwise, they will be forced to leave the state and stay away for twenty-five years. This banishment sentence states that their interracial marriage is ” against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth. Likewise, when Dee’s sister cries and berates Rich for taking Dee from the Jeter family, her : ” You had no right. You knew what you were doing,” is turned in the viewers’ mind as an indictment against the racism of the Virginia legislators.
The film’s pacing may be its only flaw. Methodically slow and uneven, the Loving’s move to the city where they share a house with a relative and deal with noise, danger and lack of green space. Stoically unhappy, they sneak back home to have their baby delivered by Rich’s midwife- mother. Even in her love, grandma states: “You never should have married that girl~you knew better.” Director Nichol’s makes it clear that change agents this family is not. Love is what moves them: principle is the after- fact.
After violating their parole, the couple is saved by their attorney, who takes the blame by lying that he told the Lovings that they could return for their child’s birth. Frank warns them that this venturing back can not happen again. And it doesn’t until their third child is hit by a car, and the city becomes a cage.
The forward motion picks up with Mildred ‘s letter written to Bobby Kennedy. After watching tv news with Aunt Laura, Dee takes auntie’s outburst of “you need to get you some civil rights” to heart. With Kennedy’s response, ACLU attorneys eager and ambitious in their want to have a Supreme Court case heard, step in. It has been five years and three children since Dee and Rich’s conviction. Now, the litigators want them to return home and get arrested a third time.
The differences between Mildred Delores’ impulses and Richard Perty’s are subtlely evoked. Slow as soup simmering, Nichol’s keeps stirring-up their love for each other. It is a beautiful thing. Altering the Constitution of the United States is a beautiful thing, too. Balk at the eighteen century Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s interpretation of racial mixing with his pronouncement: ” Almighty God created the races white, black, and yellow, Malay and red and placed them in separate continents. This shows that God did not intend the races to mix. ” or I presume to travel !
One of the joys of this film is the children. Jeff Nichol knows children. He has written their tiny parts with such knowledge that we connect with family life over and over again. This appeal centers us, and we become invested emotionally over and over again. The childish chanting repetition of ” that’s a story alright” , brought tears to my eyes. This around the kitchen table scene was one of my favorites.
Actor Michael Shannon with his city assuredness as a Life magazine photographer adds another layer of comparison to the film. We see the actual photos before the credits roll. Mildred’s sweet, ” We may lose the mall battles, but win the big war” has much to say about the good our Federal System can do. As Shannon photographs the Lovings laughing at tv’s Barney Fife, we get it.
Finally, it is hopeful to know that, “We may have some enemies, but we have some friends, too.” When Richard tells the attorney to relay to the nine Supreme Court judges that, ” I love my wife,” it encapsulates the truth of the film. The final scene where they put their children to bed and close their bedroom door is perfect.