It’s hard to believe US laws prohibiting marriage between races still existed in the early 1960s, but Loving, the new film from Jeff Nichols, provides a sobering reminder of such alarmingly recent times and attitudes. That said, it is important to stress that Loving is a subtle and quietly touching piece of work that celebrates everyday innate human decency, rather than something designed to provoke outrage in an obvious way.
The film tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a young couple who marry after Mildred falls pregnant. They decide to go to Washington DC to get married, purely because there is less paperwork. Upon return to Virginia they are promptly arrested for having an illegal marriage and told they potentially face jail time, unless they leave the State. The ACLU later picks up on their story, and the case is poised to make legal history, going all the way to the Supreme Court.
Had this been directed by, say, an Oliver Stone or a Spike Lee, this would have been a very different film. However, instead of being an angry polemic with raging courtroom battles and scenery chewing, Loving quietly tells the story from the point of view of a married couple who simply want to be left alone. Indeed, Nichols’s direction is so full of poignant, tender moments between the couple – holding hands in a car, cuddling up on a sofa, sitting on a porch at night – that a surprisingly intimate tone is generated. The viewer almost feels as though they are intruding on private moments, and of course that is exactly how the Lovings felt. Richard particularly comes to dislike the ACLU lawyers and press that intrude into their family life, even though obviously they are trying to help. However, Mildred understands the political battle far more than Richard, and sees the press intrusion as a necessary weapon in the bigger fight for civil rights.
The lead performances are superb, especially from the Oscar nominated Ruth Negga. Nichols is rapidly becoming one of America’s most consistently interesting directors, and whilst this this might ultimately prove too understated for some tastes, Loving is nonetheless a warm, humane and deeply moving film.