REVIEW: Loving [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 123 minutes | Release Date: November 4th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Jeff Nichols
Writer(s): Jeff Nichols

“You need to get you some civil rights”

It took one viewing of Nancy Buirski‘s documentary The Loving Story to recruit Jeff Nichols into writing and directing a biopic of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving’s (Ruth Negga) journey from newlyweds to Supreme Court precedent. But don’t think Loving is a courtroom drama. I’d estimate about ten minutes of its two-hour runtime take place inside a courthouse—fifteen if you count conversations outside its doors. Nichols instead decides to focus on the couple itself by creating a romantic example of a legitimate love conquers all scenario that helped change the face of America. It’s about two people letting lawyers use them to overturn Virginia’s unjust anti-miscegenation laws as long as they would be more-or-less left alone to raise their children like everyone else around them could.

Their story is about heroism through modesty with Richard and Mildred shyly speaking to journalists at the behest of their legal team rather than a desire for notoriety or fame. If anything the two of them needed discretion to remain out of jail considering they played with fire during the five plus years after their initial conviction (a suspended sentence of one year’s incarceration as long as they agreed to never set foot in their home state together for twenty-five years) by willfully returning anyway. Virginia law made interracial marriage and the sharing of a bed a felony and labeled any children born from said unions “bastards” in the court’s eyes. And the reason Caroline County Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) gave Richard upon arrest? “You know better.”

What’s best is that Brooks is correct—just not how he meant. Richard knew better than to be racist when so many were because he grew up within a black community and treated everyone as equals. His father worked for a black man, their family was friends with Mildred’s (the Jeters led by Christopher Mann‘s Theoliver), and his own closest buddy that worked on drag racing cars with him was black too (Alano Miller‘s Raymond). Besides his job as a construction worker and visiting Mom (Sharon Blackwood), we rarely see Richard with white people at all. And that’s what makes his arrest so irksome. He and Mildred weren’t hurting anyone. The police shouldn’t even have known they were sleeping under the same roof unless someone blew them in.

But here they are awoken in the middle of the night as the sheriff busts down their bedroom door. Here is Richard making bail while Mildred remains in a cell for an entire weekend until “her own people” can help her do the same. Their lawyer (Bill Camp) seems sympathetic on the surface, but honestly just wants to win and get paid. Mildred’s sister Garnet (Terri Abney) blames Richard for marrying her and causing all this trouble. And some of their friends shake their heads knowing that Richard finally understands what it’s like to be black. Except they also underestimate his love by resenting the fact he has an out to escape: divorce. Some don’t give him the credit he deserves because leaving her never crosses his mind.

Nichols film is a quiet one (perhaps his quietest yet) depicting this truth above all else. Richard and Mildred aren’t looking for a quick fix. They’re inseparable and remain so while having three children in five years as he commutes every day from DC to Caroline for a salary. Their battle with Virginia’s archaic laws isn’t flashy. They aren’t up in arms after sentencing with high-powered attorneys by their side catalyzing some action-packed thriller of judicial righteousness. Pleading guilty isn’t a stand for equality; it’s a defeat. They can’t even look at the judge when they make their plea because they know it means they’ll have to leave the only home they’ve ever known. The Lovings are humble, hard-working citizens simply trying to live their lives.

This also means that neither Edgerton nor Negga receive a glaringly Oscar-worthy moment of gravitas to vault their names into the end-of-year conversation despite being worthy of inclusion. What makes them so memorable instead is their impactful nuance throughout this venomous ordeal. It’s about seeing his Richard stew, incredulous with what’s happening yet fully cognizant he has little power to personally change anything. It’s about seeing her Mildred speak with graceful optimism and a smile, never letting their circumstances alter who she is as a human being. She never raises her voice, courageously walks towards the police car with head held high upon her second arrest, and retains the manners of a saint when dealing with her ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll‘s Bernie Cohen and Jon Bass‘ Phil Hirschkop).

Loving epitomizes the concept of dignity under fire and the idea that justice will prevail whether it takes five days or five years. It’s a hopeful story today’s world desperately needs, one showcasing how civil rights are our greatest strength and no one should be allowed to pick and chose who amongst us deserves them. Listening to Judge Bazile’s (David Jensen) statement about how God created races and put them on separate continents so as not to mix is asinine more than bigoted considering he speaks it from within a country his race wasn’t natively born. And with everything hurled around today in the name of our current President-Elect, we can no longer justifiably say, “I can’t believe this was still happening in 1967.” It’s still happening today.

So while Nichols may not deliver a film with pulse-pounding moments of suspense that will have you talking about them when you leave the theater, he does provide two heroes deserving of the label without any incendiary backlash. These two souls are simple country folk who do not back down and yet do not cause a scene. There’s a level of civil disobedience at work that’s commendable because even though the results of their case are profoundly game-changing, to Richard and Mildred it’s really just a matter of being allowed to kiss each other in a house that’s theirs wherever they see fit to live. Their last name couldn’t have been better suited to their legacy than if it was made-up. Love is colorblind and love trumps all.

[1] Ruth Negga (left) stars as Mildred and Joel Edgerton (right) stars as Richard in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
[2] Ruth Negga (left) stars as Mildred and Joel Edgerton (right) stars as Richard in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
[3] (l to r) Alano Miller as Raymond, Terri Abney as Garnet, Ruth Negga as Mildred, and Joel Edgerton as Richard in Jeff Nichols LOVING, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

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