Sometimes a movie speaks loudest when nobody raises a voice. I can’t remember a single scene of fierce denunciation, fervid declaration of righteousness, act of violence or shouting match in “Loving.” Yet it lands with as much impact as any movie you’ll see this year.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols took inspiration from “The Loving Story,” a 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski. (Buirski, credited as a producer on the new film, once ran the DoubleTake Film Festival – now Full Frame – in Durham.) But his real inspiration came from Richard and Mildred Loving, who defied convention and a Virginia law against miscegenation by marrying in June 1958.
They were sentenced to a year in prison, though the judge offered to suspend that sentence if they would move to Washington, D.C. They did, and this drama takes them from just before their wedding to just after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based marriage laws in 1967.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, an Australian man and an Ethiopian-born woman raised in Ireland, disappear into their characters. They give invisible performances – the best kind – as a man of halting speech and strong principles and a gentle woman who hopes for the best in every situation and seldom sees it.
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Even their main adversary, Sheriff Brooks (New Zealander Marton Csokas), doesn’t menace them overtly. He exudes tired contempt, as if dealing with them contaminates his own racial purity, but he doesn’t raise a hand. When Richard finds a message wrapped around a brick, nobody has hurled it through his window.
Because we know the ending, and because we can see the absurdity of the situation at a remove of half a century, there’s a perverse kind of humor to some scenes. It’s possible to laugh wincingly at gibberish flowing from the judge who sentences them:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. But for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Nichols, who has written and directed the appealing, odd “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” never tries to push us. He doesn’t make heroes out of Richard, a hard-working mason, or Mildred, the steady homemaker and mother of three. (They include Charlotte’s Quinn McPherson as the daughter who grew up to become an adviser on this picture. Charlotte actor Robert Haulbrook also turns up as a snippy court clerk.)
When an attorney asks what message he should take to the Supreme Court, Richard squints in thought and says, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” A Life magazine photographer (Michael Shannon, who’s in all of Nichols’ films) shoots the pair watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” not marching in protest.
“Loving” reminds us of something that seldom gets acknowledged in this country: Poor, hard-working blacks and whites have a lot more in common with each other than with people who have money and power. Laws such as the one that jailed the Lovings were used for centuries to divide uneducated people and keep them suspicious and frightened of each other.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Michael Shannon.
Writer-director: Jeff Nichols.
Length: 123 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements).