Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) got married in Washington in 1958, yet were arrested in their home state of Virginia for interracial marriage. For the next decade, they fought for their right to marriage and to live in Virginia with lawyers Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), resulting in the supreme court decision to legalize all interracial marriage nationwide.
There is no better filmmaker to take on this material than Jeff Nichols. Anyone who knows me knows he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, and he continues to prove his value to the New Americana cinema movement in Loving. In many historical pictures of this kind, the characters at the focus seem to be almost aware of their importance to history, the film putting them on an unreachable pedestal. That’s not the approach Jeff Nichols takes, he makes sure we understand that they were just people who wanted to be together, and had to placed in this spotlight to create change. The Lovings are not quite unwilling to take on this challenge, they just simply have other things to worry about – going to work, making a living, taking care of their children. In one sequence, Nichols cuts between Cohen and Hirschkop going to the supreme court and presenting their case and the Lovings simply going about their business and living life.
I wish I could link you to where I read it, so my apologies, but I recall reading an interview with Nichols around the release of Take Shelter, and regarding his writing process he said one of the first things he did was figure out what his characters did for a living, as it’s something that they do everyday and defines so much about their lives. He takes the same approach with the Lovings, understanding them as people rather than symbols. Nichols makes a point to show you Richard and Mildred paying the court clerk whatever stupid mandatory charge they owe for being arrested and antagonized.
Nichols reunites with his regular cinematographer Adam Stone, the pair continuing a strong run of work. This is their most calming work since Shotgun Stories, the camera rarely seems to move, at least in a dramatic fashion. This is meant to communicate the actuality of the Lovings, that they were people, not caricatures. The landscapes of rural Virginia are photographed achingly lovingly. This is David Wingo’s most subtle work with Nichols, his score is barely present, but appropriate. Nichols doesn’t need a sort of cue card string orchestration to sell you on the emotions, and Wingo is happy to accent the background however barely visibly.
Curiously, but successfully, Nichols affords little attention to the particulars of the case and the process of bringing it all to the supreme court. That’s not a problem, he’s not here for the grand theatrics of courtroom drama, but for understanding who the Lovings were. More often than not, Nichols shoots the two in intimate settings, letting the scenes unfold with them simply existing with each other, rather than beholding them to the courtroom plot.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga each give their finest performances to date. Each of them just simply exists so naturally in these roles, bringing to life the people that the Lovings were, rather than the characters we perceive them to be. Similar to his performance in Midnight Special, Edgerton adopts a southern accent so convincing I would think he was from the south if I didn’t already know he is Australian. The same goes for Negga, who adopts the same accent and performs it in such an ingrained manner. It never feels like an accent. Nichols sets his focus on their small, intimate moments together, and the two are just so breathtakingly authentic in how they simply exist with each other in these scenes. They make it feel like we’re receiving a snapshot into an actuality historical films can rarely afford to achieve.
Character actors like Bill Camp and Martin Csokas do quality work in their small roles. It’s a bit unsettling to see Nick Kroll in a role that doesn’t have him actively going for laughs, but that’s not to say he doesn’t do serious fare badly. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Nichols feature without his muse Michael Shannon, who makes a welcome appearance as Grey Villet, the Life magazine photographer that immortalized the pair on camera.
It can be argued that the best films about our past speak to our present. If that’s the case, Loving is, whether it wanted to or not, aptly prescient for our climate. We face a presidency run by the very hatred the Lovings spent a decade plus battling just for the simple right to marry. It’s not grandiose in its thematics – Nichols doesn’t have to be to get the point across – but the simple power of empathy, and yes, loving, shine through as a beacon of hope in a world indifferent to the individual. Focus Features is looking for Oscars in releasing this film, Nichols is just looking for empathy.