Jeff Nichols’ Loving is one of those rare films where the trailer screams how it will be viewed as an “important historical drama” destined for recognition during awards season, and the film that follows actually deserves it.
The story of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving fighting for their constitutional right to marry is one you may or may not know, but it is one all involved in the film use quiet conviction to brilliantly bring to the screen. The key to its success is not in what it says, but in the understated power with which it says it.
The audience does not get to see the couple meet. Instead, we see them already in love and deciding to get married, build a house, and create a family among the racially agitated residents of 1958 rural Virginia.
Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a construction worker who never verbalizes his love for Mildred (Ruth Negga), but their connection is apparent just by the way they look at one another. Distaste for their coupling is likewise evident among both Richard’s family and the redneck locals, though public opinion is not something the Lovings concern themselves with.
The pair chooses to make their love legal by sneaking off to Washington, where they hope their union will not arouse unwanted attention. Their marriage is bliss until the local authorities get involved and threaten them with prison time unless they leave the state.
What follows is an understated exploration of both law and race which goes all the way to the Supreme Court. While you may already know the outcome, the journey is no less engaging and informative by the time a song by the director’s brother (lead singer of the alt-rock group Lucero, Ben Nichols) plays over the credits.
Instead of beating an audience over the head with how groundbreaking and heroic the Loving’s act of civil disobedience was in the face of their pro-segregation peers, Nichols shows the quiet strength and conviction needed to stand up for one’s beliefs. Instead of chest-beating monologues or inspirational speeches, the story relies on the stoic emotion displayed by Edgerton and Negga to tell most of the story. Nichols inserts his favorite actor, Michael Shannon, into the proceedings as Life magazine photographer who brings their fight to national prominence, and comedic actor Nick Kroll rounds out the supporting cast with his subtle dramatic turn as a self-centered-but-well-meaning ACLU attorney championing the cause.
Loving could be viewed as award bait by some in the aftermath of the guilt Hollywood professed for historically not recognizing people of color and minorities in general over the years, but if it takes an engaging history lesson such as this film to make waves then I hope many will reel it in.
At a time when our nation is so divided on the subject of race and so many opposing voices are screaming at one another to be heard, I for one am happy such quiet strength can be both seen and heard.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon and Nick Kroll.
MPAA rating: R for moments of violence, profanity and racial tension.
Celluloid Scoreboard: A for a powerful story powerfully told.