The pivotal moment of the new historical drama Loving isn’t the Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws against interracial marriage in 1967. Rather, the big scene comes earlier in the film, when Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a black woman driven from her home state for marrying a white man, decides to fight for their right to return. Her grand gesture is simply calling an ACLU lawyer and telling him she’s on board for a legal battle.
Despite its profound subject matter, Loving steers clear of unfairly romanticizing its central, history-changing couple: Mildred and her husband, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). So it wisely opts instead to portray their union as powerfully ordinary, their love for each other as a settled fact. Mildred’s act of bravery is her quiet decision to have her ordinariness weaponized in the Supreme Court case, Loving v Virginia, to strike a blow against institutional racism.
But Loving lives in the tiny moments that precede the court’s decision and leans heavily on its actors’ subtle performances: A shudder of fear passes across Mildred’s face when she picks up the phone to call the attorney, and there’s a flicker of triumph once she hangs up. Loving is restrained to a fault, but entirely because it doesn’t want the Lovings’ triumph to feel like anything but a certainty. These were regular folks called upon to be symbols for equality because their union was as mundane as anyone else’s; the power of Loving is precisely in that mundanity.
The film is the latest in a series of interesting choices from the director Jeff Nichols. Through his career, he’s veered wildly between genres, from the sci-fi road trip Midnight Special to the backwoods coming-of-age drama Mud to the religious-fanaticism thriller Take Shelter. In all these films, however, Nichols takes care never to zoom out too far from his characters and carefully builds to every emotional twist and turn. Loving is no different. It’s a film about a sweeping court case that echoed through American history and undid a crucial strand in the South’s Jim Crow laws, but Nichols’s focus remains trained at all times on the two people at the heart of it.
As Richard Loving, Edgerton has the affect of someone who would prefer never to talk about his feelings. His bond with his wife is unwavering, but Richard isn’t one to acknowledge how unusual their marriage is. Even though he drives Mildred to Washington D.C. for the ceremony, in an effort to circumvent Virginia’s laws, Richard says it’s just to avoid “red tape.” When cops burst into their home and demand to know why Richard is in bed with Mildred, he points wordlessly at their marriage certificate, framed and mounted on the wall. After pleading guilty to miscegenation, the Lovings are ordered to leave Virginia for 25 years. They relocate to nearby Washington, but the film emphasizes the trauma of losing their home and immediate communication with their families.
Though Washington isn’t an unwelcome environment for the Lovings and their children, it’s still not home. Nichols’s camera drinks in the wide open farmland of Virginia every chance it gets, while the scenes in D.C. are almost always confined to the Lovings’ home, often to their kitchen, where Mildred makes the bold move of calling the ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and having him pursue their case. Loving is a biopic covering an important moment in American civil rights history, and thus feels like a Oscar contender. But because Nichols avoids stirring speechmaking or teary confrontations, Mildred and Richard feel all the more real, rather than like characters in a sepia-toned history lesson.
Kroll, a stand-up comedian and sketch comedy actor best known for his work on FX sitcom The League and his self-titled Comedy Central show, seems an odd choice at first to play Cohen, and his work in the role is certainly on the broader side. But he gives Loving some energy when it desperately needs it, sowing some necessary tension when he encourages the couple to move back to Virginia in violation of the law so that the case can begin again. He’s the spur Richard and Mildred need to expose themselves to the world, even if it’s much to the intensely private Richard’s dismay.
Viewers barely see a moment of the legal proceedings and hear only snippets of Cohen’s arguments. As the court case progresses, the movie returns to the home the Lovings eventually find for themselves in the Virginia countryside, mostly isolated from racist judgment, but finally free—surrounded on all sides by open air. The power of the film’s final act, where the Lovings finally have created a safe place for themselves and their children, cannot be exaggerated, and so Nichols doesn’t exaggerate. By that point, the director’s subtlety, and Edgerton and Negga’s commitment to their characters’ emotional truth, has already conveyed the true heart of Loving.