It was a day etched in American history — June 12, 1967 — in which the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriage.
The decision was a heralded day in history and featured a ripe story for a movie. While it seemed destined for a more typical “Oscar bait” treatment, writer/director Jeff Nichols decides to leave the courtroom sequences in the background and focuses on the more personal story of Mildred and Richard Loving.
Loving lacks the grandstanding “Oscar moments” that define the important historical story biopic and works into Nichols’ strengths as a filmmaker — creating a soft and quiet picture in rural America, and focusing on the couple’s relationship and hardships rather than making it about the issue.
The beginning of the film is so silent. Nichols has specialized in those quiet explorations into characters that evoke people you know. It was true in Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special, and this ability to hone in on relatable figures allows him to paint a loving picture of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) and their battle.
Negga plays Mildred with a curiosity that seems held back by both her societal conditions and her more restrained personality. As the case becomes bigger, she has to allow herself to become more vocal, especially as more cameras are thrust in her face. Mildred’s ability to bring soft-spoken clarity to the Lovings’ emotions on camera is in contrast to Richard’s aloofness and disability to speak freely with anyone but his wife.
In one scene, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), the Lovings’ lawyer, comes outside to speak with Richard after he declined Cohen’s invitation to go to the Supreme Court hearing of their case. It behooves Cohen to think someone wouldn’t want to go and be apart of such a momentous event. He echoes how historic the privilege is, but it never sticks with Richard.
When Cohen asks if Richard has anything he would like relayed to the court, he instantly answers that he would like him to tell them that he loves his wife — he lacks the desire to create that historical reprise for the court and he sticks to what truly matters to him. Edgerton plays Richard with such sweetness that it is easy to get lost in his character. The same can be said about Negga as Mildred, who gives presence to any scene she is in, but I left thinking about Edgerton and his restraint.
It isn’t that he has been such a boisterous actor in the past, but he played the role so perfectly — never electing to make a show of the role and keeping Richard’s emotions close to the vest, but allowing us enough room to understand him.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Loving lacks that “Oscar moment” when someone stands in front of a large group of people and declares what we all know they’re thinking. That isn’t in Richard or Mildred’s character, and Nichols focuses on the small moments in their life and the important aspects of their relationship to tell their story.
It is easy to look at Loving and find a hole in its story that needed to be filled with courtroom proceedings and moments that emphasized the weight of this case, but I never found that to be Nichols intention. He wanted a quiet contemplation on a family fighting prejudice in the American heartland and he wanted to humanize these iconic characters in American history.
In one scene, Michael Shannon (in his required role in a Jeff Nichols movie) appears as a photographer from Time Magazine, who is supposed to grab some shots of the Lovings for a story on their case. Again, Nichols leaves out any journalism or reporting and focuses on Shannon’s character speaking with the couple and snapping moments in their day. At one point, he looks softly at the couple on the couch watching The Andy Griffith Show and has a small smile on his face as Richard lays on his wife’s legs (in what is now a famous Time photo).
The moment is small and works as a reminder of the iconic photograph, but it also harps Nichols’ message that he never wants to walk these characters on a stage and wants their story told as humanistic and organically as possible.
Loving is not perfect, but it is true to its intentions. Jeff Nichols crafts a story about an American family doing all they can to just live a normal life with their family, but keeps the cloud of national history hovering above them and never coming in too close.
This story is not about the court, it is about how they were just like everyone else.