An emotional powerhouse that will leave audiences drained and exultant, “Loving” is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016.
This latest film from Jeff Nichols, the poet laureate of rural Southern life (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), is a lightly fictionalized depiction of the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, who in 1959 were convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Eventually their case led to a Supreme Court decision that dismantled legislation banning mixed-race marriages.
Writer/director Nichols eschews courtroom maneuvering and big speeches about civil rights. “Loving” is told almost exclusively from the vantage of the Lovings, two unremarkable individuals in extraordinary circumstances.
The film may be about big issues, but it is a spectacularly intimate experience.
Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (he’s white, she’s black and Native American) grew up in a corner of Virginia where different races were united by limited educational and economic opportunities.
Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a crew-cut bricklayer who spends his weekends back-road drag racing with his African-American brother-in-law. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is an expectant mother radiating quiet grace and dignity.
They know Virginia law bans mixed-race unions, which is why they drive to Washington, D.C., to be married. But really, who in their bucolic backwater cares?
That complacency is rudely shattered one night when police officers storm into their rural home, drag them from their bed and lock them up in the county jail.
Richard — shy and unassertive — is shamed by the sheriff (Marton Csokas) for betraying his race and violating God’s law: “He made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason.”
Richard can only hang his head and take the abuse. He hasn’t the intellect or the words to defend his love.
Rejecting an annulment of their marriage, the Lovings take a plea deal and move to D.C., promising never to return to Virginia as a couple.
But these are country people attached to the land. City bustle holds no allure for Richard and Mildred. Risking jail sentences, they keep sneaking back to visit relatives, to have their babies. (Richard’s mother is the local midwife.)
Facing the constant threat of re-arrest and prison time, Mildred comes up with a Hail Mary plan. She sends a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes the case on to the ACLU.
And suddenly this uncomplicated couple are at the center of a hugely controversial case.
Everything this film aspires to be begins and ends with Richard and Mildred, and the actors portraying them must be able to dig deep, delivering volumes of emotion with very little dialogue. Edgerton and Negga are more than up to the task. In fact, Oscar nominations for both seem a given.
Both roles pose challenges.
Edgerton must convey Richard’s simplicity without making the man look stupid. It’s a monosyllabic performance, and as the furor grows around him, it’s obvious that the stoic Richard wishes for all the hubbub to vanish so that he can go on living a normal life with the woman he loves. To stay with Mildred he’ll put up with any hell life throws him.
Negga absolutely nails the qualities that make Richard love Mildred so completely. There’s an inner light in this actress that makes every viewer fall for her. While Richard seems incapable of imagining any life but his own, Mildred sees in their legal issues a chance to make life better for other people. In her own small way, she’s a crusader.
There are other players here: Nick Kroll and Jon Bass play the couple’s inexperienced ACLU attorneys, Michael Shannon has a nice turn as a Life magazine photographer whose shots of the Lovings’ home life gave the American public non-legal insights into what the case was really all about.
But this is all Edgerton and Negga’s show, and they are breathtaking without any of the usual big actor-ish moments that so often serve as Oscar bait.
This is one film that digs in and won’t go away.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements.