Loving

(Jeff Nichols, 2016)

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We tend to think of civil rights heroes as firebrand iconoclasts, but this is not always the case – sometimes the effort to live an ordinary life in peace could lead to monumental changes, and Jeff Nichols' Loving dramatizes one such story with uncommon respect for its characters' perspective.

Real-life couple Richard and Mildred Loving became legally married in Washington, D.C. in 1958. They lived in Central Point, Virginia, but married out of state to avoid anti-miscegenation laws which made their union (of a white man and black woman) illegal. After returning to Central Point, the Lovings were arrested and charged with “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” To avoid further imprisonment the couple pled guilty, and their sentence was suspended for 25 years on the condition that they leave Virginia. The Lovings initially complied and moved to Washington, D.C., but eventually returned to Virginia to live in secret and appeal their case with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union. This led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Loving v. Virginia which outlawed anti-miscegenation nationwide.

Loving stays honest by never exceeding the modest scope of its characters' lives. Despite their eventual impact on the civil rights landscape, the Lovings are private, country people with no desire to stray far from home. Richie is a bricklayer and mechanic, legendary with locals for his drag-racing past, who wants only to provide for his budding family and build a home just down the road from Millie's parents. Millie wants only to raise her children away from the cramped row houses and speeding cars of Washington, D.C.

True to the Lovings' simple aims, Nichols devotes little screen time to courtroom drama beyond their initial conviction. Such dealings are treated almost incidentally, as inconvenient but necessary disruptions of the Lovings' determined rural lifestyle. The film's rhythms mirror their day-to-day efforts to carry on normally, and in this light the casting of comedian Nick Kroll as Bernard Cohen – the ACLU lawyer who shepherds the Lovings' case to the Supreme Court – is more canny than you might assume. Kroll's unique energy first seems out of place, like he stepped into Loving from a different movie, but this mirrors the Lovings' own reaction to their circumstances. A Washington, D.C. lawyer like Cohen can't help but come across as an interloper as he explains the potential for their case to rise to the Supreme Court, and it's clear such machinations are simply outside the Lovings' purview and likely feel more threatening than persuasive. Mildred comes to recognize the potential for their struggle to open doors for many others, but she's no crusading activist, even if she's willing to display their lives to the media if the publicity might help their cause.

Richard is more reluctant, gently pushed along by Mildred but wary of attention generated from outlets like Life magazine. In a cameo as a Life photographer, Michael Shannon dials down his usual intensity, though his presence, like Kroll's, feels slightly larger than his surroundings. This doesn't spoil the loveliness of the moments his photographer captures for Life, such as Richie and Millie communing on the couch as they watch The Andy Griffith Show.

The Lovings' raised profile benefits their case, but also brings an undercurrent of paranoia. The “brick through the window” scene has become a clichéd staple of films about the Civil Rights Movement, but Loving turns this moment on its head, positing that most racism is more insidious than broken glass. Richie can't help but notice a truck rounding the corner a little too quickly. Coworkers may be avoiding his gaze, or simply minding their own business; smiles may be sincere, or laced with hidden malice. It's awful to see the Lovings collected and thrown in jail, but tougher still may be the constant suspicion that hatred lurks just beneath the surface of banal daily routine.

Loving is one of the most intimate civil rights-themed movies. Jeff Nichols doesn't just make this the Lovings' story – the film embraces their internal point of view and actively rejects the sweeping historical scope of so many similar films, resisting the urge to twist the personal into something overly cinematic. Viewers may be conditioned to expect a climactic courtroom showdown in a film like Loving, but Nichols' decision to forgo such a scene is absolutely correct when seen as faithful to the Lovings' point of view.

Nichols is well-suited to this material, having captured the languorous atmosphere of the South previously in films like Mud and Shotgun Stories. Loving similarly allows its scenes ample room to breathe, and even if one or two silences feel frustratingly abstract, the film's commitment to keeping pace with its characters is admirable. As Richie and Millie, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give two of the year's strongest performances, bringing tremendous humanity and dimension to characters of few words.

The film's final image hits home as unpretentious, humane and poignant. Loving makes you wish more filmmakers would find such a powerful center in the simplest of moments.