Loving by Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) starring Joel Edgerton (Midnight Special, The Great Gatsby) and Ruth Negga (World War Z) captures at once the tension of man’s morally principled stand against the state, love’s intimacy and the immeasurable toll government control exacts upon the best people.
As it does, Loving deftly tests one’s rationality at every turn, demanding that the audience—woman or man, white or black—examine closely, and subconsciously, held biases, values and ideals. Like this season’s other lyrical movie about forbidden love, Moonlight, and other such tales (Brokeback Mountain comes to mind), Loving comes in three parts: breaking from tradition, getting caught and the final accounting with the facts of reality. It’s a hard, moving and elegiac movie and it ranks with Black or White and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner high among Hollywood’s greatest interracial-themed films.
Unlike those other movies, however, Loving‘s lust, love and guiltlessness is on full display. In fact, writer and director Nichols, a native Arkansan who lives in the Lone Star State as he told the screening’s audience this weekend in Hollywood, immerses the moviegoer in the nine-year saga of a Virginia married couple who, from 1958 to 1967, defied the state at every turn.
Opening with the prolonged singing of crickets against a dark screen to draw you into their world, layering in sights and sounds of Old Dominion’s nature and the manmade, from leisurely grasshoppers—the “birds and the bees”—to drag-racing and gunning of Ford Motor Company Galaxies and Fairlanes, mid-century mid-Southern living means hard work and easy, natural loving. Men, including blond, white and brawny Richard Loving (Edgerton, studied and owning the role) concentrate on every detail in manual labor. Men and women, black and white, toil under hoods of cars tinkering with engines, on blazing sun-drenched construction sites smoothing concrete edges and in wooden rooms delivering babies.
In one emblematic scene, they toil in tobacco fields and, as the camera pans, it becomes clear that it’s been almost a hundred years since the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Races by now are mixed and, amid the race mixing, with poor whites such as Loving and biracial or multiracial people such as his girlfriend Mildred (Negga in a subtly mannered performance), this part of a Virginia county is a community. Marriage of a white man to a partially black woman (which happened in real life and is the basis for this movie) is almost like breaking a sweat in the fields or cracking open a beer; it ought to be mere fact of life.
Only it isn’t an acceptable notion and everybody knows it. Except for Richard Loving, who takes his bride to where it’s legal to marry among different races and comes back to the county where all hell breaks loose and someone—it’s never disclosed who—snitches to the police, who enforce the archaic law banning interracial marriage by breaking in on the married couple’s bedroom. Almost as soon as the cop (Marton Csokas, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Alice in Wonderland) invokes religion—condemning the man-woman relationship as breaking “God’s law”—the newlyweds proclaim themselves “Guilty”. They go to jail. And Mrs. Loving is pregnant.
But Nichols, as he did in Midnight Special, Take Shelter and Mud, brings in the winds of change, which keep blowing and regenerating the lands and minds of Loving. Mildred and Rich Loving, like outcasts, forbidden lovers and persecuted others everywhere, try to live by the rules and can’t abide. One of the smartest things about the screenplay is its insistence on going slow, not fast, in showing how Mr. and Mrs. Loving fail to disown their egos—living apart, leaving the county, the state, and their families—in order to be a married couple. As they keep having kids, with the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in the backdrop, Nichols dramatizes the folly of selflessness.
Winds blow, lives are torn apart and Loving sifts through the years as they live in fear of total government control of their lives. In this way, thanks to Nichols, Negga and especially Edgerton’s flawless performance as a man who is completely alone among his fellow men, Loving is emotionally powerful like Snowden. A scene at the bar where he drinks beer with his drag racing buddies confirms that collectivism (i.e., racism) contaminates every part of his life and Richard Loving’s response is a wrenching depiction of statism’s harmful impact on the individual. “I love my wife”, Loving says at a crucial point. But when he does, he knows the terrible and unjust cost of refusing to be conquered by the violation of his rights.
The man who labors, races and loves his wife and children is a credit to himself, however. In a single exercise of free speech, someone reaches out for help and help goes on the way. It’s a long time and hard fight in coming and the waiting robs the couple of time. That one of their only precious and private moments comes during a brief rest during The Andy Griffith Show with a Life photographer on hand is integral to the historic couple’s unique tragedy and legacy. This lesson is the moral of Nichols’ searing yet gilded new fable.