We all owe a lot of our personal freedom to a couple of people who never wanted to be famous for what they've done. Those people would be Richard and Mildred Loving who, in 1958, snuck out of their rural town in Virginia to Washington, D. C. to get married. Upon arriving back home, the police crashed through their doors and demanded the couple be arrested. The judge sentenced them to one year in prison, or that he would suspend the sentence provided they never be in Virginia simultaneously for the next twenty five years. The Lovings took off from their home and would go on to spend nearly the next ten years struggling to lead normal lives, until the ACLU took on their case and spearheaded Loving v. Virginia, which led to miscegenation laws being ruled as unconstitutional in the United States. That's right: the only crime the Lovings committed was being an interracial couple.
Now, I am a white guy, so it's time to check my privilege--I'm straight, cisgender, comfortably upper-middle class, quietly nonreligious and have pretty much every advantage you could think of. I guess I'm not tall, so take that for what it's worth. But I do have family who are in an interracial relationship and so I immediately connected with Jeff Nichols's film about the Loving family. And if you know anyone at all, like a certain President of the United States who is of mixed ethnicity, then you should give a damn about Loving. I can hear right now all of the people who would look at a movie like this one and question why they should care about a story about the civil rights of people in mixed relationships if they themselves are not. Well, do you also know any gay people who are married or in a relationship? Of course you do. They're also allowed to legally move through society (legally, not comfortably, depending on where they live) because of the precedent set by the Lovings.
All of this preamble makes it sound like Loving is a Big Important Movie about Big Important Issues, but it really doesn't play that way at all. Nichols is from the South himself (Arkansas, to be exact) and shows that he understands the sort of people Richard and Mildred Loving were, played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively. As always, he both writes and directs here, so when Edgerton speaks almost entirely in monosyllables and Negga completely downplays her reaction to earth-shaking news, it's because Nichols had them do it. Nichols's quiet, reserved approach to his characters in this movie is the yin to the yang of the hyper-verbosity of screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin or Woody Allen. All three filmmakers craft fully realized characters, but Nichols does so in an entirely different way. I'm coming to appreciate his style more and more with each film.
The film makes its argument for the sanctity of this couple's relationship by showing how ordinary it really is. The Loving people are brought down to our level mostly because our lives are filled with the day-to-day activities of living, like folding laundry, spending time with friends and family and working. There is an almost hypnotic grace and rhythm to the film that is brought upon by the repetition of simple tasks. You see Richard at work on the foundation of a house for his construction job so many times that it feels like it should be a heavy-handed symbol, but then you realize that we are just being shown what is happening to this man on a daily basis. The Loving family did not bring about social change because they are special in any way, but because they have just as much of a right to a legal relationship as anyone else.
A lesser quality but higher-budgeted Hollywood production would have shifted the focus from the quotidian lifestyle of the Loving family towards the involvement of the ACLU in their lives. The very green civil rights lawyer who is appointed to the Loving case is played incongruously but well by Nick Kroll. We are witness to a few meetings between the Lovings and the lawyer, which move fitfully and awkwardly. Richard is more or less not on board with the whole affair, evincing discomfort at the thought of how high-profile his and Mildred's lives are becoming. Mildred, via Negga's incredibly expressive face and eyes, shows quiet, firm determination, eschewing the histrionics you may expect from a film that could have easily been a courtroom drama. Nichols's understated sensibility is allowed free rein over the film and so it never strays into Oscar bait territory, not even for a second.
Loving shows that there was room for the fire and brimstone approach of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.--portrayed so memorably in Selma--and the elegant simplicity of the couple at the center of this film. When historical dramas are marketed as showing you a side of history you've never seen before, you'd expect far more fireworks than you get in Loving. But this movie does show you something you've never seen before, and it makes you realize how shrill most other films out there really are.