Every director has a specialty. For writer/ director Jeff Nichols, he seems to be most comfortable telling stories set in the rural South. He’s made 5 movies so far, and they’ve all been just as much about their setting as their characters. But his current movie, Loving, is a perfect blend of setting and character—not to mention history.
Loving tells the true story of the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision, handed down in June of 1967, which overturned all laws that prohibited interracial marriage in this country. The obvious precursor to the gay-marriage decision, the Loving case had been the most significant step towards equality since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
But for Nichols and his film, Loving is not about the great societal impact this ruling would have, nor its place in history, but instead is a tender, intimate and incredibly moving story of the two people behind the history: two quiet people whose lives became forever etched in the lore of the American Civil Rights movement.
Richard Loving, who was white, and Mildred Loving, who was black, loved each other. They ended up being poster children for a movement, but what this movie shows, more than anything else, is that they didn’t care about being on any grand stage, they weren’t interested in being protestors or groundbreakers. All the Lovings wanted to do was live their lives—together. The fact that they were swept up into the belly of history was neither their pursuit nor their want. So many great moments in history are incited or inspired by a single act or a single modest person or persons who just got tired or fed up with injustice. Whether Tiananmen Square or Rosa Parks, history has proven that the smallest of individual stands against inequality or injustice are sometimes all it takes to change the world. In Loving, Richard and Mildred Loving are more than names in our textbooks, they are real people and this is their world-changing story—their love story.
Richard and Mildred are played in the film by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, and their performances are the stuff movie dreams are made of. I watched the movie on which this film is based, Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary, The Loving Story (available now on HBO), and I fell in love with Richard and Mildred. When I saw Edgerton and Negga’s portrayal of them in a full-fledged Hollywood movie (independent, though it is), I was astounded at how both actors completely captured their subject’s tone, personality and being. They each managed to fully inhabit the character with authenticity and believability while never once impersonating or coming off as hollow.
Nichols’ screenplay is equally dazzling, following the exact timeline and story of the documentary while giving it a narrative structure and voice to the people involved that feels organic and alive. As I’ve mentioned, so much in a Nichols movie is about setting, and he lets the rural Virginia setting play as big a part in the movie as the human characters do. There is a palpable energy that comes from the screen in every Nichols movie, and the one in Loving is both stirring and subtle. Breathe deeply and you just might be able to smell the tall, wet grass.
I won’t lie and say that watching Loving at this time in our country’s immediate history didn’t feel even more relevant than it obviously is. With echoes of the gay marriage decision and debate still fresh and the currently existing racial divide in our country, not to mention the rift in our country along racial, economic and geographic lines accented by the current divisive and damaging presidential campaign, this film instills a significantly ironic emotion: how far we’ve come yet so far we still have to travel.
Loving may have larger significance as a reminder of all that we are and have been as a country, but, in the end, the truth is it’s just a film based on a true story. But what a story….and what a movie.