Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, are sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration available.
There are few movies that speak to the American moment as movingly — and with as much idealism — as Jeff Nichols’s “Loving,” which revisits the era when blacks and whites were so profoundly segregated in this country that they couldn’t always wed. It’s a fictionalization of the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a married couple who were arrested in 1958 because he was white, she was not, and they lived in Virginia, a state that banned interracial unions. Virginia passed its first anti-miscegenation law in 1691, partly to prevent what it called “spurious issue,” or what most people just call children.
The America that the Lovings lived in was as distant as another galaxy, even as it was familiar. The movie opens in the late 1950s, when Mildred (Ruth Negga, a revelation) and Richard (Joel Edgerton, very fine) are young, in love and unmarried. They already have the natural intimacy of long-term couples, the kind that’s expressed less in words and more in how two bodies fit, as if joined by an invisible thread. It’s a closeness that seems to hold their bodies still during a hushed nighttime talk on a porch and that pulls them together at a drag race, under the gaze of silent white men.
Those hard, reverberant stares are about the only hint that the world in “Loving” is going to be falling off its axis. Mr. Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Mud”) has a way of easing into movies, of letting stories and characters surface obliquely. If their story didn’t open when and where it does, there would be nothing remarkable about Mildred and Richard. But this is a Virginia still in the grip of Jim Crow, so when they decide to marry, they exchange vows in Washington. Not long after, the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) and his deputies — prowling like thieves — enter the couple’s home in the middle of the night and arrest them for breaking the state’s law against interracial marriage.
The Lovings have been the subject of both books and movies, including “The Loving Story,” the 2011 documentary directed by Nancy Buirski that is partly the basis for Mr. Nichols’s movie. Ms. Buirski’s documentary primarily consists of archival film footage, including of both Lovings at home with their three young children, and with the lawyers who helped the couple in their legal fight. The footage is charming, in the way that some images from the past tend to be, with their old-fashioned clothes and recognizable yet faraway worlds. Part of the allure, though, is just the Lovings themselves and how they look at each other and how they look at the camera — her shy openness, his wary reserve.
With exacting economy, Mr. Nichols borrows from the documentary — its people with lined faces, its rooms with weathered walls — drawing on signifying minutiae, textures and cadences to fill in his portrait. He captures the era persuasively, embroidering the realism with details like Mildred’s knee-skimming skirts and Richard’s brush-cut hair. One sequence restages a 1965 visit to the Lovings from a photographer, Grey Villet (Michael Shannon, a bolt of lightning), who was on assignment from Life magazine and whose exquisite, artfully casual photographs remain the most recognizable images of the Lovings, partly because they suggest the unforced intimacy of family snapshots.
Mr. Nichols’s most distinct aesthetic choice is the movie’s quietness and the hush that envelops its first scene and that eventually defines the Lovings as much as their accents, gestures, manners and battles. He wraps them in a deep-country quiet, the kind that can unnerve city people and sound — feel — utterly foreign, especially to ears habituated to the noise of American movies with their therapeutic chatter. There’s beauty in this silence, as when Mildred closes her eyes as the wind stirs the trees. There’s also diffidence and thudding fear, because while Richard’s taciturn affect may be a matter of temperament, his darting, haunted eyes also suggest those of a whipped dog.
The movie lightly traces the arc of the Lovings’ story, including their decade-long legal fight to live in their home state as husband and wife, even as Mr. Nichols plays with time, omits certain facts and glosses over others. He’s more interested in showing Mildred and Richard laughing with their friends than in hanging around courtrooms, watching their defense. Here, in scene after scene, the story of the Lovings is nothing if not wrenchingly personal. (The lawyers — played by a broadly funny Nick Kroll and a rather more subdued Jon Bass, with a sardonic twist — humorously sweep in like the cavalry, courtesy of Robert F. Kennedy and the American Civil Liberties Union.)
It’s perhaps unsurprising that “Loving” elides how the real Mildred Loving saw herself, which apparently changed over the years. At times, she identified as part white, part black and part Indian; at other times, Ms. Loving said she was Indian and white, with no African-American ancestry. On the Lovings’ D.C. marriage license, she is identified solely as “Indian.” (The scholar Arica L. Coleman details these complexities in her book “That the Blood Stay Pure,” which, among other things, looks at Virginia’s contribution to white supremacy.) In “Loving,” race is a fiction, but it is a lie that continues to justify terror long past slavery’s end, reducing people to boxes, one checked black, the other white.
Movies get a lot of mileage from the fantasy that we are the heroes of our own stories. Life’s regular hum — the effort and joy of making homes, having children and nourishing love — tends to be drowned out by speeches and dramas in which characters rob banks to get out of debt instead of struggling or despairing. It’s why the insistent, quotidian quiet of “Loving” can feel so startling. It plucks two figures from history and imagines them as they once were, when they were people instead of monuments to American exceptionalism. It was, the movie insists, the absolute ordinariness of their love that defined them, and that made the fight for it into an indelible story of this country.
-MANOHLA DARGIS, NY TIMES