Mud, Midnight Special) were largely off-kilter and opaque. Nichols tends to focus on odd protagonists—a delusional laborer, a wandering gangster, an alien boy—but even more central to his filmmaking are his disdain for convention and his gift for unpredictability. Yet anyone with access to Wikipedia could comfortably predict how Loving will play out.
This does not make it bad. On the contrary, it can be satisfying to
watch a familiar story unfold on screen, particularly when it is
well-told and well-acted. And of course, the movie's theme—that stoic
decency can defeat senseless bigotry—is a worthy one, equally relevant
now as when the events of the film took place. Still, the challenge for
Nichols is to make Loving stimulating as a piece of cinema as
well as a lesson in history. Given his meat-and-potatoes approach to
this material, it's a marvel that he even half-succeeds.
Loving opens in 1958, with Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), telling her boyfriend, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, who starred in Midnight Special
earlier this year), that she's pregnant. His characteristically
succinct response: "Good. That's real good." Their romance is generally
happy—they are untroubled by the disapproving looks that they
occasionally receive from others—and when Richard proposes shortly
thereafter, Mildred says yes without hesitation. The catch: Mildred is
black, Richard is white, and miscegenation is illegal in their home
state of Virginia. Undaunted, they travel to Washington, D.C., to get
married. But when they return, those judgmental looks acquire the actual
judgment of the law.
Crazy, right? But this actually happened, and one of Nichols'
achievements is the way he illustrates the terrifying normalcy of racism
as it existed in the Jim Crow South. The local sheriff (Marton Csokas,
very good) views Richard with an appalling combination of disgust and
pity, theorizing that this traitorous white man just doesn't know any
better. The judge (David Jensen, also from, wait for it, Midnight Special) is mystified that two adults could so
brazenly violate not only the laws of Virginia, but those of God. Even
the Lovings' lawyer seems reluctant to serve his clients, angling to
minimize their punishment rather than even attempting to argue that
their behavior is in no way criminal.
Fortunately for the Lovings, there is the ACLU, personified here by a
pair of youthful, energetic, not entirely confident attorneys: Bernard
Cohen (Nick Kroll, keeping a lid on his comic persona) and Phil
Hirschkop (Jon Bass). And the majority of Loving functions as a
legal procedural. It follows the winding pathway that transformed the
Lovings from an anonymous couple into a cause célèbre for the civil
rights movement, as their lawsuit against Virginia eventually lands in
front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (In a bleakly comic moment, Cohen
advises the Lovings to return to Virginia and get re-arrested in order
to give them standing to appeal, a proposal that Richard dismisses
It does its best. But while Loving strives to articulate the intimate, human costs of
state-sanctioned prejudice, it never quite transcends its hagiographic
template. The nuance that it does possess is due primarily to its two
lead actors. Negga, a firebrand on AMC's Preacher, portrays
Mildred as both generous and persistent, a patient woman who is
nevertheless willing to put up a fight. But it is Edgerton who provides Loving
with its feathery poignancy. His Richard is a gruff, soft-spoken man
who just wants to be left alone, and Edgerton lends him a simmering
swirl of anger, guilt, and pride. When Cohen asks Richard if there's
anything he'd like to say to the Supreme Court, his one-sentence reply
is utterly perfect. What else is there to say?
And really, what else is there to say about Loving? As a survey
of an important legal and political event, it's educational and
inspirational. As a movie, it's heart-warming, well-intentioned, and
rather bland. By faithfully conveying the Lovings' story, Nichols has
made a gentle, unassuming film that's virtually impossible to dislike.
But as Richard and Mildred would surely attest, like isn't quite the
same thing as love.