'Loving'

Jeff Nichols's Stay-at-Home Heroes
Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga in "Loving"

A man is sleeping beside his wife late at night in their bedroom. Suddenly the door crashes open and an intruder flashes a light in their eyes, tells them their marriage doesn’t exist, and hauls them off to jail. Days later, a man in a black robe gives the couple a choice: a year’s imprisonment or exile from their home state for twenty-five years. Bewildered, they take the latter option. Is this a scenario for a horror movie? A sci-fi thriller? A Kafkaesque allegory? An Orwellian prediction of the totalitarian state? In any event, it must be a story set in a very strange place, with customs, laws, and morals completely alien to the American way of life.

Actually, not at all. The scene described above is what ignites the central struggle of Loving, a new film based on the true story of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving. Their arrest in a Virginia town almost sixty years ago brought on a series of legal battles fought on their behalf by the ACLU and ending with the Supreme Court decision Loving v. the State of Virginia, which invalidated state laws banning interracial marriage.

If the bedroom break-in seems to pitch us into a horror story or allegorical nightmare, it’s partly because writer-director Jeff Nichols (who created Take Shelter, an utterly American take on the Kafkaesque) starts the film with a brief series of scenes that make the Richard-Mildred relationship seem not only sweet but almost perfect. When Mildred tells Richard, before they are married, that she is pregnant, the news brings him nothing but joy and the desire to marry her. We see their shared excitement at the victory of the race car he works on. We see a modest, dignified wedding ceremony before a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C. No sign of unease, danger, furtiveness, or anything that smacks of illegality, though, significantly, Richard does feel it necessary to nail their wedding license to a wall.

Then come the arrest, the imprisonment, a racist lecture by the arresting officer (a brilliant performance by Morton Csokas) made all the more horrifying by being delivered in an almost fatherly manner, the husband’s stealthy after-dark visits to see his wife at her parents’ home, and finally a trial where the couple are found guilty of a crime “against the peace and well-being of the Commonwealth.” Nichols’s triumph is that he first lulls us with the attractive normality of the married couple and then draws us into a nightmare while simultaneously making us understand that, to everyone except the Lovings, it isn’t a nightmare at all but simply a defense of The Way Things Are. Their marriage is like one of those trick drawings that, depending on how you view it, can look like a duck or a rabbit. Regarded as human individuals, the Lovings are a supreme example of normality, but from the point of view of the Virginia legal system in 1958, they are criminals. They may not wish to disturb anyone, but their corner of the world refuses to let them remain inconspicuous.

Loving avoids the impersonal feel of so many “docudramas” in which titles continually appear to announce the dates and locales of the grand historical events about to unfold, with lawyers and politicians making important speeches as the music swells to cue our feelings of patriotic pride. Instead, this is a movie of soft voices and intimate glances in homely settings. We do see the Lovings’ ACLU lawyers heading into the Supreme Court, but the couple they’re representing elects to stay home, and so we stay at home with them. The phone rings; Mildred answers, listens calmly, thanks the person on the other end and goes back to her domestic chores. History has been made without cinematic exclamation points.

But Mildred knows perfectly well what has been done and what part she played in it. It was Mildred, after all, who felt exiled from the family and landscape she loved, and it was she who, seeing the freedom marches of the early 1960s on TV, wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred her case to the ACLU. To the role of Mildred Ruth Negga brings the tense, graceful poise of a small, swift animal who hears danger approach through the underbrush and makes lightning calculations for the best self-defense. Negga’s Mildred is a rational being fighting irrational laws by putting her plight into the hands of benevolent experts and trusting that justice will prevail.

But as good as Negga is, the real centerpiece of the movie is Joel Edgerton’s Richard Loving. If Mildred is tacitly political, her husband is pre-political. Though in appearance just the sort of man northerners might dismiss as a redneck, he really doesn’t seem to regard the color line as applying to him. Working construction for a living, his real talent is for building and maintaining race cars, and he takes unabashed delight in the way his black friends affirm his talent by driving his vehicles to victory. And if he and Mildred haven’t hurt anyone with their marriage, why is the law hassling them? The layers of history that have produced laws that institutionalize racial prejudices (a.k.a. “local traditions”) apparently haven’t made headway into Richard’s consciousness. (I say “apparently” because one of the movie’s few faults is that it doesn’t shed much light on Richard’s background, and so we don’t understand how he came to have such an open mind and so many black friends in the first place.)

I haven’t been a fan of Joel Edgerton’s work in the past. The corruptible FBI agent he played in Black Mass was too slimy to be pitiable; his Pharaoh in Exodus: Gods and Kings seemed too petulant to be menacing. But his performance here is flawless. He never allows Richard’s simplicity to veer into simplemindedness or his love for Mildred to cloy. He also makes us understand that Loving’s simplicity, had it been unaided by Mildred’s sound instincts, might have put their plight beyond legal remedy. On his own, he might not have grasped how their personal woes could evolve into a “case.” His idea of legal aid is for the ACLU lawyers to “talk to” the Virginia judge who found him guilty, and when he learns that they plan to take the case to the Supreme Court, he protests, “But we didn’t do nothin’.” For Richard, all courts are intimidating, and the Supreme Court supremely so. When asked by a lawyer if he has any message for the nine Justices, he can only reply, “Tell them I love my wife.” Loving’s distributors have understandably chosen this utterance to be the Big Quote line in the movie’s trailer. But actually it’s the moment immediately following that line that is truly heartbreaking. Having said all that he can say, Richard then gives his lawyer a bewildered stare. It’s the look of a dog that’s been unfairly whipped. For such radical innocence the law, whether it’s on your side or not, must always be a riddle.

Published in the January 6, 2017 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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'Born to Be Blue' & 'Miles Ahead'

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