Jeff Nichols first appeared on the independent film landscape in 2007 with the well received Shotgun Stories, a family drama set in rural Arkansas starring Michael Shannon and made for just $250 000. He garnered further critical notice with his subsequent films – Take Shelter (2001) and Mud (2012) – before securing studio backing for his 2016 foray into sci-fi with Midnight Special, his most ambitious film to date. In all of his previous films, Nichols served as both writer and director and that is the case once again with Loving, although this is both his first screenplay adapted from another source and his first film drawn from real events. Impressed by his ‘intuitive depictions of Southern men and women’ in Mud, producers Colin Firth, Ged Doherty and Nancy Buirski sought out Nichols to take the helm of the project. It was only after watching Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story that Nichols agreed to draft a screenplay before ultimately deciding to sign on as director as well, despite concerns that the ‘quiet’ film he wanted to make might not be what people want to see. Quiet is a good word to describe the subtle, low-key approach Nichols has taken in telling a story about two people whose unwavering love for one another had a very significant impact on thousands of Americans. Whilst most movies that tell stories from the Civil Rights-era are typically laden with protest marches and rousing speeches, Nichols is much more understated in his approach to the subject of racism and injustice in 1950’s Virginia.
Australia’s Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a quiet, hard working white man whose marriage to African-American woman Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) results in them being harassed, jailed and victimised in Virginia because of laws in that state that make inter-racial marriage illegal. Their devotion to each other is palpable and their relationship exudes a naturalness and unwavering strength that stands in stark contrast to the impossible situation in which they find themselves. When the film begins, Mildred is already pregnant and, having purchased a parcel of land not far from where Mildred has spent her entire life, Richard pops the question and whisks her away to Washington to be married. They know that their marriage is forbidden in their home state but, never really expecting to encounter any problems given that their relationship has never been a secret, they return home to begin their married life. However, when the authorities are tipped off about the marriage (we are never explicitly told who reports them, but Richard’s mother seems the most likely culprit), the couple are carted off to jail.
Given a suspended sentence on the proviso that they leave the state and do not return for 25 years, Richard and Mildred take up residence with relatives in Washington. However, a life in the inner-city is not what Mildred wants for her children (of whom there are three in quick succession) and when she writes a letter to Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy seeking his assistance, her case is taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union. Nichols avoids dramatic set-pieces; a few shots of the hostile expressions on faces when they see the couple together is all that is needed to articulate the disdain that (white) members of the community have for Richard and Mildred’s union. Even the courtroom scenes are very subdued as their lawyers take the case to the Supreme Court knowing that, justice aside, a win will win give their careers a significant boost. The outcome becomes a landmark in the battle to end bigotry and is a triumph for the resilience and quiet determination of the couple.
Whilst Edgerton is terrific as the taciturn, but devoted Richard, Negga is the heart of the film; the Ethiopia-born Irish actress imbues Mildred with integrity, grace, loyalty and emotional generosity in a wonderfully eloquent yet understated performance. Shannon pops up in a small role as a photo-journalist from Life magazine, while Marton Csokas is given little to work with as Sheriff Brooks, a one-dimensional construct who presents as a clichéd bigot. The production design seems authentic and the hustle and bustle of life in the city is presented, somewhat simplistically, as dangerous in contrast to the freedom and safety of the life in the country for which Mildred yearns, which is a little ironic given how they are treated in Virginia. Nichols is one of the finest filmmakers working in Hollywood today and whilst Loving isn’t his best film (which isn’t necessarily a criticism given his body of work thus far), it is to his credit that he makes no attempt to cajole his audience into accepting a particular point-of-view. He doesn’t tell you what you should think and, perhaps more importantly, he never allows the political and broader social implications of the case to overwhelm a very personal story in which love does, ultimately, conquer all.