FILM REVIEW: ‘Loving,’ the precedent-setting trials of a biracial couple in Virginia

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By Tuesday, Nov 22 Arts & Entertainment
Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred in Jeff Nichols' 'Loving,' opening Wednesday, November 23, at the Triplex Cinema.

Loving

Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Marton Csokas, Sharon Blackwood, Nick Kroll

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Run time: 123 minutes. Rated: PG

With Trump’s victory and his early appointments, one can clearly see that he is readying to rescind environmental regulations, undermine Obama Care, and move towards the Draconian restriction of immigration. Of course, I have barely scratched the surface listing all the destruction Trump will probably bring in his sweeping away of much that is good and socially caring in our public life. But there is no point in allowing my rage and despair to take over.

One thing Trump and ultra-right, racist henchmen like Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions can’t do is outlaw interracial marriage again. It leads me to write about the quietly moving film “Loving,” skillfully directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud”) portraying the true story of an interracial couple — a black mother and housewife Mildred (Ruth Negga), and a white bricklayer Richard (Joel Edgerton), who comes from poverty, has black friends and seems utterly natural and unself-conscious in a totally black milieu (e.g., racing cars. Drinking at a bar).

Mildred gets pregnant, so the couple goes off and gets married in Washington, D.C., returning home to 1958 Virginia to try to live out their very ordinary lives in a rural small town milieu.

The real Lovings, in 1958.

The real Lovings, in 1958.

But Virginia law had outlawed interracial marriage (one of 24 states that held it illegal), and after being arrested and facing the threat of a long prison sentence, they unhappily return to Washington, which they never adjusted to.

One striking example of the period’s racism occurs when they are arrested in Virginia. Richard is bailed out of jail the following morning, while the pregnant Mildred must remain in her cell throughout the weekend until a judge comes Monday morning.

The film, crafted in an understated, subtle fashion, offers no swelling music, nor melodramatic plot twists, nor a big dramatic payoff. Neither the quietly dignified Mildred nor Richard is educated; neither is a civil rights activist. Nor are they particularly articulate. So they make no angry speeches about racism, nor ever fully express what they are feeling.

Richard, in fact, barely speaks and can be moody, sullen, and often uneasy with other people. He just simply wants to be able to love his wife and raise his kids in the world he grew up in. And he’s tortured by the fact that his masculine dignity is stripped by the state, and he is not allowed to love his wife, whom he gazes at adoringly, the way he wants to.

After a number of years of living in Washington, Mildred — the emotionally stronger and more politically conscious of the two (she watches Martin Luther King Jr. on television and realizes that the case allowing them to marry will have larger social implications) — writes U.S. Attorney General Robert. F. Kennedy for help. Kennedy refers her to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agrees to take the case. As everything else in this modest, minimalist film it almost skips over the Supreme Court trial, featuring just a few remarks by the two ACLU lawyers Bernie Cohen and fellow counsel Phil Hirschkop — both barely characterized — before delivering the positive verdict — defining marriage as an inherent human right — by telephone to Mildred without ever contriving the predictable catharsis by manipulating our emotional responses.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving.

The film’s strength lies in its central performances — Edgerton an Australian, Negga born in Ethiopia — that without much exposition or a backstory powerfully communicate almost all we want to know about their relationship. The Lovings, as they are aptly named, are humble people who are thrown into playing a major historical role, without it changing their personalities or their way of life.

If the film errs it’s on the side of being too constrained, and leaving out a few too many important details. It’s hard to believe that their situation wouldn’t have caused some marital tensions, but the marriage is depicted as a serene one — where raw emotions are never expressed. “Loving” may not be a formally or politically exciting film, but it feels true to its central characters, and stirs one deeply.

‘Loving’ opens Wednesday, November 23 at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. For showtimes and tickets click here.


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