Before her own death in 2008, Mildred Loving eulogized her husband Richard thusly: “He took care of me.” Apart from the Fourteenth Amendment considerations, the Supreme Court case heard in 1967 bearing their name should have pivoted on Mildred’s sentence. Of such ordinary lives are landmark cases made. Homer Plessy faded into obscurity after the Court ruled in 1896 that separate but equal provisions were constitutional. John Lawrence died at sixty-eight of congestive heart failure; reporters found out from reading a funeral home’s website.
The Loving case resists the histrionics of cinema, and with Jeff Nichols writing and directing it often resists cinema, period. As low-key as an afternoon spent on a Virginia porch looking at the fields, Loving threatens to dissolve into the early morning mist. By concentrating on Richard’s blue collar work habits and Mildred’s housekeeping and their commitment to their backwoods families, Nichols engages in a anti-glamor glamorization, similar to a a contemporaneous LIFE Magazine campaign that did much to move public sentiment in the Loving’s corner. It’s a solid picture but a bit much; it’s Thanksgiving at a relative’s where you can’t wait to leave.
In a performance characterized by a stolidity so determined that it’s as if the camera were caressing a cinder block, Joel Edgerton plays Richard, an albino whose own family in remote Caroline County has dwelt among blacks for at least a generation; indeed, a passing reference to his father having worked for a black man goes unchallenged. When Richard, a jack-of-all-trades best suited for construction, gets the eighteen-year-old Mildred (Ruth Negga) pregnant, he does what was in 1958 the honorable thing: he proposes marriage. Hovering unsaid is the knowledge that Virginia law penalizes such couples with up to five years in prison even when done out of state (the Lovings were married in DC). The unshowiest parts of an unshowy film reveal a man of not much education who on the evidence had no problem fraternizing with black men and women: not just fixing cars and drinking with them but living with Mildred’s relatives.
Then in the middle of the night the police break open the door. Richard points, to no avail, at the marriage certificate he has hung on the wall as a Catholic would an image of the Sacred Heart. What follows is a cycle of arrest and calm. The Lovings get what was at the time leniency: suspended twenty-five-year sentences on condition that the couple leave Virginia. They settle in DC, the silent victims of mild discrimination as the black-heavy part of town isn’t quite ready for a mixed race couple. Several years later on a clandestine night trip to Caroline County so that Richard’s midwife mom can deliver Mildred’s first child they are re-arrested.
At its best Loving limns the contours of a marriage defined by the most basic of verities, such as a poignant shot of the couple separating so they can sit in two flanking police cars. A white man marrying a black woman in the early sixties and sticking with her was as radical a political statement as the Freedom Rides. As this blog has insisted since its inception almost a decade ago, I hold no truck with the complacent who cleave “the personal” from politics. To be black in America in the twentieth century meant grappling with forces that sought to destroy your body — a leitmotif about which James Baldwin never stopped reminding liberals. Watching the Loving children play in increasingly depressed urban spaces while Mildred in her freshly starched skirt hovers in a cloud of worry is as poignant a reminder of white abandonment of cities as any journal article.
Which is why, in retrospect, Nichols’ depiction of Mildred’s unacceptance of the status quo has the power of a fisted glove. With the inevitability that characterized the Lovings’ lives, Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their case; he refers her to the ACLU, eager to test miscegenation laws with a strong case. But Loving is not one of those movies in which white Ivy League liberals learn Deep Values thanks to contact with the oppressed; indeed, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Philip Hirschkop (Jon Bass), as flummoxed by the Lovings’ avoidance of the bold move as the rest of us, do most of their machinations off-screen. Nichols is smart enough to devote a sequence to that LIFE Magazine photo shoot (Michael Shannon has an effective cameo), during which the full measure of the Lovings’ bottomless adoration was immortalized.
A director specializing in how the unexpected — the sublime and the horrible — can wreck lives, Nichols after a while earns his faith in the material. The performances by the leads, Negga in particular, couldn’t be improved; even Edgerton’s Heath Ledger-isms start working for him. Apart from one didactic scene in which Richard’s friends ask him what it’s like to feel like a black man, Loving doesn’t err; it’s a film of cumulative power. At its best it shows how the smallest gesture can become a pivot in history.