Jeff Nichols has always been great at making the extraordinary...ordinary. That skill makes him the perfect director to tell the story of civil rights pioneers Richard and Mildred Loving, whose simple devotion to one another was never meant to spark any kind of sea change. Nichols' latest, Loving, is a quietly powerful treasure depicting the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which made interracial marriage legal across the country. In a brief but exemplary career, and a remarkable 2016 already with Midnight Special, Nichols has somehow managed to top himself with the finest work he's ever done.
The story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving has always been known but it didn't really get the public attention it deserved until the recent HBO documentary shined proper light down on it. The details are as unbelievable today as they were painfully acceptable decades ago. The interracial couple broke the law when they got married in Washington, DC in 1958, then returned home to Caroline, VA to set up house and home. In the dead of night the police come kicking in the doors to haul them off to jail. The judge isn't having it. Nobody seems to acknowledge Mildred's existence...most of the venom by these white men is aimed at Richard. Their disgust for him as a race traitor (The sheriff tells him flatly “Your blood don’t know what it wants.") is as plain as the hate on their faces. The judge forces them to leave the state for a period of 25 years; away from their home, their families, their work, everything they've ever known.
With a little help from Bobby Kennedy, ACLU, and their lawyer (Nick Kroll), they took the case to the Supreme Court ten years later, gaining a verdict that struck down anti-miscegenation laws. The road to getting there isn't littered with big dramatic, fist-shaking moments. Nichols, as ever, is concerned with the little things, the tiny gestures, the calm between the thunder. There are no huge rallies or protests. There's just Richard, who stoically vows to take care of the woman he loves. He's a man who finds himself reluctantly being pulled into a fight he doesn't want. All he wants to do is work on careers, go racing with his friends, and impress Mildred. He wants to give her everything she could ever need. In one of the film's most touching early scenes he takes her out to a nearby field, showing it off as if it were some place they had never been. She's unmoved, at least until he tells her that he bought it with plans to build them a home. A place for living and growing old together. It's then that she gets it, and you can see the realization flash across her face in a smile that will melt your heart.
It's Mildred who turns out to be the firebrand of the two, although that is probably too strong of a word for it. There's power to go along with her grace, and as played by Negga she is transfixing. She doesn't do much that is outwardly showy, but whenever she is on screen you can't take your eyes off her. With only a few words she sets the course for everything the Loving's set out to accomplish, while Richard yearns to be out of the spotlight. The performances are only elevated by Negga and Edgerton's tremendous chemistry, and you don't care for a moment that such an American story has two non-Americans playing the central figures.
Loving arrives during arguably the best year Hollywood has ever seen for movies dealing with race and the African-American experience. You could conceivably, and believably, see four or five such movies nominated for Best Picture Oscars. With the racial climate in our country more heated than ever, a film like Loving that emphasizes our common need to love and be loved by whoever we choose regardless of race couldn't have come at a better time. On its own Loving is already one of the best movies of the year, but timeliness gives the potential for profound impact.
Rating: 4 out of 5