“We may lose the small battles but win the big war.”
In 2016, attempting to imagine a time where interracial marriage was ever deemed illegal might feel like a distant memory, not to mention one that puts today’s progressively aspirational society to shame. Given the current discourse on racism in the United States, one might say that Jeff Nichols’s latest entry couldn’t have been better timed, exploring an issue that was never actually resolved to begin with. Despite building a much-celebrated body of work over the course of his young career, the director/writer is now treading new ground with Loving, shifting from the more ethereal storytelling of his previous films. This time, Nichols is exploring the history of his beloved South, specifically the painful civil rights case of Loving v. Virginia. Directed with a sensitive touch, Loving is an understated, moving portrait of an interracial couple in segregated 1958 Virginia, finding Nichols at undoubtedly his most affecting to date.
The film opens in a quiet, dimly lit room in 1958. With anxiety in her eyes, Mildred (Ruth Negga), an African-American woman, announces her pregnancy to Richard (Joel Edgerton), her caucasian boyfriend. The following day, he excitedly buys an unspoiled acre of land where he promises to build their house, a private sanctuary in which to raise their family. Not too long after, Richard convinces Mildred that they drive from their home in Virginia to marry in Washington D.C., where interracial marriage is legal. The rest, as they say, is history.
Soon enough, their idyllic existence is ruptured by harsh reality. Before the newlyweds can even celebrate their marriage for too long, they are arrested for only the first of too many times, for simply defying the law that so unfairly stands between them and their will to be with each other. When Richard is released early, the prejudice quickly rises to the surface as a pregnant Mildred is left behind bars, forced to wait for a judge to arrive days later and decide their sentence.
Quickly enough, once Mildred and Richard realize how powerless they are to their situation and the greater forces that relentlessly attempt to tear them apart, it’s she who quietly takes charge and leads the way. With a powerful, tender performance by Ruth Negga, it’s Mildred that proves as the couple’s spine. While she initially seems a bit shy and quiet, it’s ultimately her determination that pushes them towards a hard-earned victory, like when she writes Bobby Kennedy for help with their case after seeing the inspiring image of Martin Luther King Jr. on television. The twinkle in her eye and the inner strength she possesses are precisely what the two need in order to hold their ground and keep the fight alive, especially in the terrible face of discrimination and unfairness. Through Mildred, Negga emerges with one of the most memorable performances of the year, infusing every scene with overwhelming emotion and grace.
On the other hand, while it’s Mildred that assumes the voice of reason, Richard is a man of very few words, one with a gentle heart but a ragged exterior. Edgerton showcases yet another intense performance, one that serves as a reminder of why he’s still one of the most underrated actors of his generation. As Richard is repeatedly humiliated, he struggles with his masculinity, helpless when it comes to taking care of his family and the one at fault for inviting all of this “trouble” their way. With the weight on the world on his shoulders, he just wants to be left in peace with his wife and kids. He has absolutely no interest in creating a spectacle out of their situation, and Edgerton’s modest, yet compelling performance effectively conveys Richard’s pain and deepest desires.
The film certainly doesn’t feel as immediate as your typical historical piece and nor does it try to, which works well in its favor. Nichols knows himself too well to delve into waters that aren’t his to swim in; as a director, he is at his best telling stories about people, and in this instance, perhaps less about the Loving v. Virginia case itself and more about the human beings at the center of it. Not only does he tell an important, and still too relevant story with the Lovings, but he’s also expertly crafted yet another brilliant addition to his ever-expanding career on top of this year’s Midnight Special. Though Loving may have been criticized as being too restrained, it’s precisely that gentleness that makes it all the more compelling. This is Nichols at his most intimate yet, and that’s saying something.