The historic case in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that it was unconstitutional to ban marriage between races is developed into the poignant, intimate story of the couple who won the battle, Mildred and Richard Loving. The film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols builds dramatically and is packed with tension, but the story is told with quiet dignity and a reflection of personal feelings rather than as a polemic.
Ruth Negga does award-caliber acting in the role of Mildred, the African-American woman who is wooed by Richard, movingly performed by Joel Edgerton, who masters the difficult task of making us feel his emotions while conveying his taciturn nature. We meet them in 1958 when they fall in love in Virginia and go out of state to marry.
The battle begins when local authorities invade their home and humiliatingly haul both off to jail for violating Virginia’s long-standing law against interracial marriage. A sympathetic lawyer who is friends with the local judge strikes a deal that they can avoid jail time if they plead guilty and agree to move out of the state and not return for 25 years. They can return individually, but not together.
The film gives us an intimate portrait of their marriage, the children they have and their respective families. But they run afoul of the law when they return so that Mildred can have her first child with Richard’s mother helping the birth in her role as a midwife. They get a break again from the judge, but with a stern warning.
The serious legal challenge begins after Mildred writes a letter asking help from Robert Kennedy. His office contacts the American Civil Liberties Union, which puts attorneys on the case, sympathetically played by Nick Kroll as Bernie Cohen and Jon Bass as Phil Hirshkop.
The years are telegraphed into a workable plot, as the ACLU arranges for favorable publicity that gives the case--and the Lovings personally—wide public attention. Michael Shannon plays Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet, who takes pictures of the couple at home. Mildred is amenable to all the exposure, but Richard is reluctant to be publicized, although he goes along at the behest of wife. They are modest and won’t even attend the argument when the case finally gets before the Supreme Court.
The film handles the appeal nicely, with the judges shown only in a faded image, and the ACLU lawyers facing the camera with brief statements characterizing their argument. The news of victory comes in a phone call to Mildred, whose face tells the story of how joyful she is at the outcome. One can’t stress enough what a penetrating portrayal Negga gives throughout.
“Loving” certainly is among the best pictures of the year, not only for calling fresh attention to a landmark case, but for the skillful way in which the issues are presented as a very personal and deeply moving story. A Focus Features release. Reviewed November 26, 2016.