Like all of Jeff Nichols work, Loving is a film in whose style is reflected the personality of its protagonist. Richard Loving was a quiet, understated man, and Loving is a quiet, understated film. It is based on a true story, but unlike most true story films (especially those released during awards season) there is little sentiment, and almost no indication that these were Important Events. In fact, if it were not mentioned by a character, you might not even realise that these events were a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
In 1958 Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man, married Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a black woman. They lived in Virginia, where such a union was illegal, so they travelled to Washington D.C. to exchange their vows. Shortly after their return, the Lovings were arrested and told by a judge that they could not live together in the state of Virginia. The Lovings moved to Washington, but made several trips back to Virginia to see their families (and were arrested for them). In frustration, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy recommended their case to the American Civil Liberties Union, who managed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
What is most interesting about Loving is just how little attention is paid to the landmark legal proceedings. That isn’t a criticism. Another filmmaker might have made something closer to a courtroom drama, relegating the Lovings themselves to pawns in history’s game. But Nichols instead focuses almost all his attention on the married couple. This is a film about two people who love each other, and continue to love each other despite everything their society throws at them.
Ruth Negga is superb as Mildred Loving. Mildred is a shy, soft spoken young woman with a hidden idealistic streak. It is Mildred who steers her marriage into the political spotlight, although Negga’s portrayal suggests that she is never quite aware of how portentous her actions will be. Richard, on the hand, would be quite content to be left alone. Negga’s performance is getting the awards attention, but it is Joel Edgerton’s that carries the film. Richard Loving is a laconic and private man with a quiet reservoir of determination. This is a man who will gladly risk imprisonment to build a life for his family.
There is a scene which recreates the famous photograph from LIFE magazine, the one of Richard and Mildred watching television, Richard’s head in his wife’s lap. That photograph is the perfect encapsulation of Loving. This is not a film about historic legal battles; there are barely three scenes in courtrooms, none of them more than a few minutes long. No, this is a film about a husband and wife trying to live their lives as any other husband and wife would. It is ostensibly – and, it could be argued, a much needed – film about civil rights. But ultimately, Loving is just a film about loving.