It's particularly disheartening to hear a story steeped in institutionalized racism and know that many of those feelings live on today, denigrating those who only seek equal rights across humanity. Yet it is also reassuring to be reminded that—throughout popular culture and especially in the younger generation—there's never been a clearer sense of right and wrong in this seemingly never-ending battle for equality.
Loving is about two of those who fought to get us here. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as the Loving family, Richard and Mildred. An impromptu pregnancy leads to an equally impromptu marriage for the white Richard and the black Mildred, one (mostly) supported by friends and family but not by their rural Virginia community. When the local police get wind of the arrangement, the two are carted off to jail and eventually forced to leave the state.
The Lovings move to nearby Washington, DC, where they're largely ignored by tolerant city slickers. But Ruth rightly cannot let go of the situation, sneaking back to Virginia to give birth and eventually reaching out to the United States government for assistance. Her call is answered by Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll of Kroll Show fame) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass of Big Time in Hollywood, FL), two young lawyers who sue Virginia and eventually take their case to the Supreme Court.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (of Take Shelter and Mud fame) doesn't amp up the drama or rewrite history. Though Mildred's persistence leads to the case actually being challenged in court, the Loving family—particularly Richard—is far more interested in being together than setting an example.
Edgerton's Richard is the strong, silent type, but not in the vein of the cowboys and lawmen who've come to define that description. He isn't projecting masculinity, forced or natural, onto the world; he just doesn't have much to say. He's the sort of man who loves deeply and honestly yet doesn't have the communication skills nor the personality to share those feelings in words. But Edgerton masterfully chisels anguish, and longing, into his features as time, frustration, and fear batter down his defenses.
And Negga gets to be the courageous one, the person very aware that she's stepping out of her comfort zone—and will be punished more severely if caught—but also unable to betray her true feelings. Both Edgerton and Negga have roles that typically end in long monologues in front of important people, swaying their hearts and minds with honesty and emotion. But Nichols eschews showiness and asks his leads to win us over on a smaller scale. It's less flashy, for sure, but far more compelling.
Some may argue that Nichols takes the heroism out of our heroes' hands and grants it to young white men, but neither of the Lovings ultimately feel minimized. Instead, Nichols gives us ample evidence as to where the two are coming from and why they'd avoid the spotlight. When a photographer from Life magazine (Michael Shannon, playing enjoyably against type) captures them for an upcoming spread, it seems a needless risk for a family already challenging tradition and hiding from the law. Mildred sees the value in sharing their story with the world, but Richard is the one who largely shields her and their children from the threats and tension that start to creep around every corner.
Does Richard feel regret in regards to the path he's chosen? A scene near the end, at a bar with Mildred's family, indicates he's at least very aware of how the world now sees him. And, like anyone who has been beaten down by life, Edgerton presents a man drained by weariness (and perhaps fueled only by a sense of obligation) as their case nears a conclusion.
Whatever the historical reality of the situation, Nichols keeps his film grounded in two people who just wanted to enjoy their little corner of the world. Richard and Mildred Loving never had grand plans for their marriage to break down barriers or changing the world; they gave into love and fought for it through whatever means were available. Through that lens, their story becomes even more iconic and universal. When a love is so basic and elemental, and hurts no one, only the ghastliest forces would deny it.