Focus Features 123 Minutes PG-13
This film portrays a love story showing the commitment and determination by an interracial couple that had historic consequences. Who you love is not a decision to be made by state governments and this one went all the way to the Supreme Court!
Director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) saw a documentary by Nancy Buirski's documentary The Loving Story about Richard and Mildred Loving, starting in 1958, who were arrested for living as a married couple in Virginia which was against the law. They were exiled from their home town and forced to move away from their families because they were married. He was White and she was Black.
Nichols says he was so moved by Buirski's film, he sent a note to his wife about it wondering if he should make a feature about them. His wife told him, “If you don’t make this, I’ll divorce you.”
This film is a very deliberate, slow, low-key love story with unlikely actors playing Richard and Mildred. Nichols was making his Sci Fy thriller Midnight Special with Australian actor Joel Edgerton in a supporting role. At a screening of that film they attended, Edgerton said he liked being in supporting roles but Nichols joked and they both laughed when the director said he changed all that by putting Edgerton in the lead for his next film as Richard in Loving.
The Director thought that with blond hair and bad teeth, he could make Joel convincing as Richard and he does. There is absolutely no hint of Edgerton’s Australian accent. But even moreso is Edgerton’s amazingly restrained and convincing performance as the shy Richard who never wavered in his commitment to his wife. Nichols gets intense emotion from him with the absolute minimum use of words and action. Yet we feel his frustration, powerless status, and love with each sideways glance and eyebrow twitch. Especially poignant when the court asks what he wants to say, and it’s simply, “Tell the judge I love my wife.”
Ruth Negga, as Mildred is very understated but her emotion and tenacity to do what’s right and be heard come through. Negga was born in Ethiopia but raised in Ireland. No accent here either. Nichols says when Negga auditioned, she literally turned into Mildred before his eyes. The actress says she studied Buirsky’s documentary to get the way Mildred’s spoke, moved and sounded and she succeeds.
Nichols shot the film showing Mildred and Richard as a very ordinary couple who just want to have normal days in their home town raising their kids with their families. The racist police and Virginia courts are not shown as anything more than a reflection of the times in the 50’s and 60’s when segregation and laws subjugating Blacks were just the way of life. The Lovings did not start out to be Civil Rights advocates or even buck the system. They just wanted to live like everyone else.
But the way Nichols shot the film, you always think that something even more terrible than going to jail will happen to them which builds tension. Of course it’s devastating when they are suddenly arrested and the pregnant Mildred is in jail for 3 days while Richard is desperately trying to save her. Their devotion is unparalleled. Negga says she was moved when she actually visited that tiny jail cell where Mildred was kept.
They had to move to Washington D.C. to live and finally, it took Mildred’s letter asking for help from Robert F. Kennedy to bring the situation to a head and get the ACLU involved. Nick Kroll is known as a comedian, but plays the Lovings’ boisterous lawyer, Bernie Cohen. It’s a serious role. But he lightens the drama as the couple get more involved in the judicial process. Enter Michael Shannon as Grey Villett, the Life Magazine Photographer who did a story on the Lovings in 1966 that brought attention to the couple and the case. It made a huge impact and helped the Lovings when it was brought before the Supreme Court who ruled in their favor in 1967. See the photo below.
With racial tensions as they are now, this is an important film to be seen decades after the Lovings fought to be together. Nichols has tackled the couple’s situation with a slow and steady pace showing sensitivity and respect. This is a historic love story that needed to be told.