Overview: After being arrested for their unlawful marriage, interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving become the center of a decades long legal battle. Focus Features; 2016; Rated PG-13; 123 minutes.
As A Verb: Mildred (Ruth Negga) speaks the first two words of Jeff Nichols’ new film Loving. Almost anyone to whom these two words have ever been spoken can attest to their power, to the complex emotional and cognitive reaction that they unavoidably elicit. Not Richard Loving, though. His response is straightforward and simple. “That’s good,” he says after a beat, “That’s good, right?” Joel Edgerton plays Richard as a quiet, fidgety, introverted brick-layer and mechanic, a man who knows that the simplest way to build sturdy structures and complex machines is by setting their parts in the right place. In conversation, his constant half-fists dig insecurely around his pockets and, on most topics, he looks toward his shoes. But in discussions where he knows what he means to say, Richard looks you right in the eye and says it. And here, in the opening and every second after, the truth is certain. He loves Mildred. For him, that’s a foundational and unconditional truth, a truth through which all other information, including Mildred’s first scene confession, is processed.
As An Adjective: A lot happens to the couple because of their love; their 1958 marriage would result in their arrest, a decade-long legal battle, and an altered interpretation of our federal constitution. But for the most part, Richard and Mildred, in the film anyway, seem mostly concerned with loving one another the best way that they can and, as much as they are permitted, on their own terms. Nichols’ most powerful sequences and shots, those that lay the most narratively-functional bricks of his story, are almost all nearly wordless. The story is told through images of one body’s position relative to another–hands reaching outward and met by another hand, foreheads of lovers pressed together, family and friends moving in dance or embrace, and, perhaps most powerfully, the individuals who are determined to enforce an oppressive law almost always standing in the frame alone, weak in spite of their wicked confidence. The film doesn’t need many words, and Richard and Mildred (particularly Richard) do not give many of them. Most of their dialogue is an exchange of simple sentences and questions, often at the same “two words at a time” rhythm.
As A Name: In fact, the first extended monologue comes from Sherriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), the small-town, snarling Virginia lawkeeper who is hell bent on preventing the Loving marriage to take residence in his county or state. Brooks explains the law spitefully, as his position and God’s, and uses up a significant portion of the entire script’s line count. Perhaps so much more time is spent explaining his position because the movie agrees with Richard and Mildred’s implied interpretation: love is the truth and it is a simple truth in need of little explanation or defense. Brooks’ rambling begins a trend in which long-winded passages are reserved exclusively for vocalizing and defending the sinister intent of oppressive government structures, while the couples’ love is defended only by observation of Adam Stone’s cinematography and David Wingo’s subdued, distant score (both are familiar Nichols collaborators and both are becoming essential to his storytelling brand). We see it and, without needing to be told why, we know that it should exist.
That isn’t to say that their love remains unscatched. Over the course of their battle, the movie gives witness to the bruises. The fight is enough to bend the will of more than just Richard and Mildred. First we see Mildred’s sister Garnet (Teri Abney) scold Richard for his decision to marry Mildred and the consequences. Then, Richard’s solemn mother Lola (Sharon Blackwood), a mid-wife who is assisting Mildred in the birth of their first child, expresses her tired doubt in her son’s reasoning. Family members, one by one affected by the consequence, begin to tire of the fight. When Garnet comments that the Loving children have grown big, Mildred replies, “I hate it for them.” She’s speaking literally of her disdain for their being forced to grow up in the city, far from the place she considers home, but she’s also voicing her resentment that they are growing into a world that needlessly and hatefully makes love a battle, a battle which defines far more of their existence than the two could have ever prepared for, far more than is fair. Richard carries this cross visibly. In a late scene, it is suggested to Richard that in order to free himself from the oppression typically reserved for people of color, Richard need only divorce Mildred to regain his respected standing in the society. A drunk Richard repeats the idea to himself and the word “divorce” feels anything but at home on his lips. He goes home that night and wakes his wife with an assurance that he can take care of her, a declaration that should never be so sorrowful.
As A Legacy: Very little of the court proceedings unfold on camera; Nichols allows two Civil Rights attorneys (Jon Bass and Nick Kroll) and a few scattered reporters (including Michael Shannon as the LIFE magazine photojournalist Grey Villet) to cover the implications and outcomes. Richard and Mildred remain, in the public eye, figures of unassuming hope. When Mildred is asked a question about all the lives that are in position to be helped by a positive outcome in their Supreme Court battle, she nods and acknowledges that yes, many people will be helped. But it’s almost like she is parroting the question, having not had time to think about this, to think about anything more than finding an opportunity to love her husband in a normal life. And who could blame her?
Nichols is a filmmaker whose sense of empathy might be unparalleled by any working American filmmaker, and this helps him make all the right decisions in bringing Loving to a close. As their attorneys present their cases to the Supreme Court, the Lovings stay home and Nichols stays with them. What we see, as we hear the opening arguments against anti-miscegenation laws, is a shot of the bi-racial Loving children tossing a rope over the tree branch on their family’s property meant to be tied for the purposes of play. This is a bold arrangement for Nichols, a Southern-raised, white male director, but, in a film that is astonishingly apolitical in its text, the moment rises up as one of the more powerful political sequences of the year. Nichols is also right to allow the announcement of the court’s decision to be silently delivered through Mildred’s face, as Negga’s expressive acting throughout the film is nothing short of standout. She will deserve every ounce of critical adoration, every nomination, and every win that this performance might earn her. And finally, Nichols is right to end the film with a title card quote from a late-in-life interview with the real Mildred Loving discussing her feelings for her husband, punctuating an extraordinarily intimate film.
Overall: No film exists in a vacuum, and Loving arrives at a time at which its message is incidentally much needed. In the current tumultous and divided moment, as fights for human decency loom inevitale on the horizon, Nichols’ film should serve as a reminder that not only do we have to commit to these fights that we should not have to fight, but we also have to decide to keep loving. And we have to take care of each other.
Featured Image: Focus Features