In 'Loving,' Even Racism Seems Polite

The movie 'Loving' does not provide the kind of passionate experience that could have given a historic civil rights case its due place in our memory.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in a scene from, 'Loving.'
Ben Rothstein, Focus Features via AP

The American director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Mud”) shows admirable restraint in telling the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose marriage led to a historic Supreme Court ruling and a major triumph in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. At the same time, his restraint at times seems too calculated, and it prevents “Loving” from soaring cinematically beyond the story it unfolds.

That story is, without doubt, of enormous importance for United States history, and it is presented fairly. Fairness and decency, however, are not enough to generate a deeper cinematic essence. We feel what the makers of the movie intended us to feel, such as outrage and anger at the suffering the Lovings must endure on the way to the Supreme Court. But Nichols – who also wrote the screenplay – fails to give us something beyond that. “Loving” does not provide the kind of experience that would have given a historic case its due place in our memory, as the best kind of filmmaking can do.

It is the first feature to be made about the couple, who were previously the subject of a made-for-television movie in 1996 and then of a 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story,” directed by Nancy Buirski (the latter is an evident influence on Nichols). Set in Caroline County, Virginia, the story begins in the 1950s, when Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a young woman of mixed African American and Native American descent, tells Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), her longtime lover, that she is pregnant. Richard’s family originally came from England and Ireland, and he and Mildred have been together since he was 17 and she was 11. His response to the news is typically laconic, but his country-boy curtness cannot conceal the depth of his feelings for Mildred; the two are deeply in love.

Since Virginia law forbids interracial marriage, Richard and Mildred drive to Washington, D.C. to have their wedding. Afterward they return home, where Richard intends to build a house for his new bride. His unspoken but obvious determination to make everything right is touching, though Mildred seems not to share his optimism. Although their marriage is valid in the North, it isn’t in their own state, and Mildred seems more aware than her husband that trouble is on the way. It arrives: the law steps in, and after they are both sent to prison, the Lovings are exiled to Washington for 25 years, during which they are forbidden to return to the county where their families live and where they, too, want to make a life for themselves.

Iconic images

Life in the big city is difficult for a country couple. The Lovings sneak back to Caroline County after their first child is born, only to be harassed again by agents of the law. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sees their case as an opportunity to challenge Southern legislation against interracial marriage. Nichols’ movie does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mildred and especially for Richard to cope with the intense public attention the case receives, when all they want is to live quietly and happily with each other. At one point, a Life Magazine photographer (Michael Shannon) visits their home; the pictures his real-life counterpart took, part of the magazine story that presented their predicament to the American people, became the iconic images of the Lovings. There is also a certain ambivalence, well represented in the movie, about the way activists in the Civil Rights Movement, including some of the lawyers involved, use the Lovings’ case to advance a just and important cause: not everyone is as skillful or sensitive as might be desired.

The restraint of “Loving” is evident, among other things, in the wise decision not to show the Supreme Court battle. Including the courtroom struggle would have created unnecessary drama for anyone familiar with the fight for racial equality and with the outcome of the case. Moreover, showing it would have been inconsistent with how Richard and Mildred themselves feel about the struggle they reluctantly come to epitomize (all through the movie, Mildred is shown to be more engaged in the fight than Richard, who prefers to keep it at arms’ length; she even writes to Robert F. Kennedy, trying to enlist him to their side). The legal fight took about a decade, until the ban on interracial marriage was finally declared unconstitutional. For the Lovings, as the movie clearly shows, all that mattered was for the battle to be done already, so that they might move on with their lives.

“Loving” is a respectable work that tries to be as restrained and low-key as its heroes and their reactions to a hostile environment. Still, I would have liked to see a bit more passion and even anger in the movie. I can’t remember any other picture providing such a dispassionate view of the racist South. The representatives of Southern law and order are simply performing the duties dictated by the local legislature. This aspect of the movie might be seen as a virtue, but it also creates a certain emotional monotony. “Loving” comes across as a dutiful picture, and one of its tasks is to avoid having an overt ideological agenda; it obeys this duty with a well-intentioned obedience that ultimately hampers the result.

Still, the movie has its strong sides, such as the portrayal of the locations where the action takes place and, above all, the two lead performances. Joel Edgerton is excellent, and Ruth Negga, whom I have never seen before, is even more impressive: her lovely face demands our attention, and her large eyes reflect such quickly turning emotions as worry, fear, acceptance and resolve. If there is one main reason to watch “Loving,” Negga is it.