The Lovings (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) lived a nine-year nightmare.
Try to get your head around this: Less than half a century ago, an interracial couple could go to prison in 16 states for committing the felonious crime of exchanging marriage vows. Today, this criminalization of matrimony seems unfathomable, but for simple country folk Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), an African American woman, it was a waking nightmare that lasted nine years until the United States Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute as unconstitutional in 1967. (The court most recently referenced that decision’s characterization of marriage as a fundamental right when invalidating bans against same-sex marriage in 2015.)
Loving (a title that works on more than one level) unhurriedly recounts this husband and wife’s near decade-long ordeal by showing their quiet and unwavering commitment to each other. The pacing is slow and thoughtful. Director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) no doubt calibrates the film so deliberately to convey how this grossly unfair law constantly weighs on the Lovings, particularly when they risk long-term imprisonment upon returning from exile to the state they call home. (A scene late in the film, in which Richard panics as a speeding car kicking up a trail of dust barrels toward their isolated rural home, is a wry comment on the lack of artificial high drama here.)
Even when you know how this story ends, you still feel anxious as time drags on and on and on. Though it’s impossible to know exactly how these two people felt in coping with this untenable situation — they only wanted to get married and raise a family — Nichols gives you a damn good idea, even when it slightly wears your patience.
All too frequently, historical and biographical films bestow a saintly nobility upon their subjects, transforming human beings into purposely constructed symbols. When that happens, a movie can become preachy and annoying. Loving skirts this temptation and, except for a couple of scripted platitudes uttered by Mildred (Negga, in a performance so pure and uncomplicated she gets away with it), it resists glorifying these reluctant heroes — David Wingo’s swelling score aside. Indeed, Richard’s inability to easily verbalize his feelings defines the film’s aesthetic. He speaks as if words must pry themselves from his mouth to be heard, similar to the way Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar struggled to express himself in Brokeback Mountain. But when the inexperienced ACLU lawyer representing the couple (a strangely cast Nick Kroll, who smiles a lot) asks Richard what he would like him to tell the members of the Supreme Court during oral arguments, the usually inarticulate man gives a response so simple and distilled you want to reach out and hug him: “Tell the judge I love my wife.” Up to this point, Edgerton’s earnest performance has felt a tad actorly, but in that sweet-spot moment, it rings like a wedding bell.