Loving (Focus Features, PG-13)

This portrayal seems overly optimistic for the 1950s but may also reflect the director’s choice to focus on the Lovings as individuals rather than the civil rights struggle in general.

loving

Thanks in part to the struggle for marriage equality for same-sex couples, many people are aware of the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated state laws prohibiting marriage between people of different races. This case has also been covered by a well-received documentary (Nancy Buirski’s 2011 The Loving Story) and several books. Given this context, director Jeff Nichols made a wise decision to make the relationship between Mildred and Richard Loving, a small-town couple whose lives might have passed without notice were it not for the fact that one was white and the other was black, the central focus of his film.

Loving opens with a series of brief scenes that establish context for the rest of the story, beginning with the fact that Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a black woman, is pregnant by Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man (he’s delighted with the news). They live in rural Caroline County in eastern Virginia, where drag racing is a popular recreation, most people do fieldwork or manual labor (Richard works in construction), and close family ties are everything. It’s also an area where white and black people mix freely, without obvious signs of segregation and only limited expressions of racial hatred (this portrayal seems overly optimistic for the 1950s, but may also reflect the director’s choice to focus on the Lovings as individuals rather than the civil rights struggle in general).

Richard and Mildred drive to Washington, DC, to be married, because Virginia prohibits marriage between people of different races (the questionable proposition of classifying the race of people of mixed ancestry was solved using the “one drop” principle—if you have any black ancestry, you’re black). They return to Caroline County, the only place either of them has ever known, and in so doing break the laws of Virginia. While mixed-race relationships were not unknown in the state, the fact that the Lovings were married (and thus, that their relationship was recognized as legitimate by a governmental entity) drew the ire of the local sheriff (Brooks, played by Marton Csokas), who has them arrested and thrown in jail. Sheriff Brooks makes it clear that he’s not just enforcing the law, he’s acting on his personal beliefs, making him one of the few individuals to express overt racial prejudice in this film.

Thanks to an able lawyer, Frank Beazley (Bill Camp), who also happens to be a friend of the presiding judge, Leon Bazile (David Jensen), the Lovings are given a suspended sentence upon condition that they leave the state and remain out for 25 years—should they return together during that time, each will have to serve a year in prison. Faced with that alternative, they move to Washington, DC, where they cope as best they can with an environment they find crowded and noisy and too far from their families. When Mildred’s first pregnancy comes to term, they return under cover of night to Caroline County because she wishes for Richard’s mother Lola (Sharon Blackwood), a midwife, to preside over the birth (and presumably to have the support of her own extended family during this time). But someone rats them out, they are brought before the court, and once again Beazley is able to get them off. However, even he has had enough of the case and warns them that they need to stay out of the state because there will be no third miraculous reprieve.

The Lovings settle in DC, where the television news regularly reports on the events of the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps with this as an inspiration, Ruth writes to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy about their situation. He refers their case to the ACLU, which assigns the case to Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll). He begins the process of challenging the conviction, working through the lower courts until eventually their case is accepted to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Lovings becomes well-known thanks to a feature in LIFE Magazine, illustrated with photos by Grey Villet (Michael Shannon), and the Court’s unanimous decision in striking down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law was an important victory in the fight against racial discrimination.

The through-line in Loving is the strength of Mildred and Richard’s love for each other, which saw them through trials that would have broken a weaker couple. Both Negga and Edgerton deliver strong performances, while Adam Stone’s cinematography captures the beauty of rural Virginia, giving you a sense of why they kept returning there. While the court’s decision had far-reaching implications for many people, it had its basis in the wrong done a couple whose only crime was to love each other, as reflected in the message Richard Loving asked Cohen to convey to the Supreme Court: “I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” | Sarah Boslaugh

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