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LOV­ING, bi­og­ra­phy/drama, rated PG-13, Vi­o­let Crown (opens Nov. 23), 3 chiles

As late as a half cen­tury ago, in Vir­ginia and a num­ber of other states where the “pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tion” had flour­ished be­fore the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, it was still against the law for a man and a woman to marry if one were white and the other black. This is the painfully re­cent world writer-di­rec­tor Jeff Ni­chols

(Mid­night Spe­cial) re­vis­its to tell the true story of the ap­pro­pri­ately named Lov­ing fam­ily, Richard (Cau­casian) and Mil­dred (part African Amer­i­can, part Chero­kee).

When in the open­ing scene, on the wooden porch of a rus­tic cabin in Caro­line County, Vir­ginia, Mil­dred (Ruth Negga) con­fesses her­self preg­nant, her boyfriend Richard (Joel Edger­ton) takes a mo­ment to ab­sorb the news, then smiles and says, “Good.” He pro­poses, and a lit­tle while later they drive north to Wash­ing­ton, DC, to be mar­ried by a jus­tice of the peace. But it’s not just il­le­gal for mixed races to get mar­ried in Vir­ginia in 1958; it’s il­le­gal to be mar­ried. Soon af­ter they re­turn home, the cops break into their house in the dead of night, roust the sleep­ing cou­ple from their bed, and haul them off to jail. The sher­iff (Mar­ton Csokas, righ­teously sat­ur­nine) quotes scrip­ture to un­der­score the Bib­li­cal in­junc­tion that like must marry like. Their lawyer (Bill Camp) ar­ranges for the court to give them a break. The judge (David Jensen) of­fers them a choice: Get out of Vir­ginia or face 25 years in prison.

Richard Lov­ing has grown up col­or­blind in a re­mote cor­ner of ru­ral Vir­ginia. His daddy worked for an African Amer­i­can man, his friends are mostly black. Richard is a sim­ple man, a brick­layer. And it’s this sim­plic­ity, and this lunch-pail work ethic, that Ni­chols brings to the telling of the story. He puts the movie to­gether un­flashily, brick by brick. He never tries to daz­zle. He gives you an hon­est day’s work.

Their friends and fam­i­lies sym­pa­thize, but only so far. “You knew bet­ter,” mut­ters Richard’s mother, the lo­cal mid­wife. One of his African Amer­i­can friends points out that he may think of him­self as the same as them, but he’s not. They’re stuck with be­ing black. “You can al­ways get a di­vorce,” the man says.

The Lov­ings raise their fam­ily, two boys and a girl, in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, ex­iles from the life and sur­round­ings they’ve al­ways known. And then in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. leads a his­toric march on Wash­ing­ton and a friend says to Mil­dred, “All this talk about civil rights — you need to get your­self some civil rights.” So Mil­dred sits down and writes a let­ter to U.S. Attorney Gen­eral Robert Kennedy. That let­ter finds its way to the ACLU, a cou­ple of young civil rights lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) take their case and slowly, but res­o­lutely, Lov­ing v. Vir­ginia moves through the ju­di­cial sys­tem and makes its way to the Supreme Court — and his­tory.

But don’t ex­pect court­room theatrics like “You can’t han­dle the truth!” or a court­room con­fes­sion, or a tri­umphant show­down be­tween the forces of fair­ness and the forces of racism. To the be­wil­der­ment of his at­tor­neys, Richard de­clines to even at­tend the ses­sions of the high­est court in the land. We see the im­pos­ing fa­cade of the Supreme Court of the United States, and we catch a glimpse or two of the pro­ceed­ings in­side, but the mo­ment of truth — one that swept away hun­dreds of years of le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion against the right of peo­ple to marry whom they want, and that set the ta­ble for more progress in this decade — is re­vealed through Mil­dred’s quiet re­sponses at her end of a phone call.

Mil­dred is the one who is con­scious of the im­por­tance of what is go­ing on. It is she who starts the ball rolling with the let­ter to the attorney gen­eral, she who is gen­er­ally the one to speak in the meet­ings with the lawyers. Richard has no am­bi­tion or even aware­ness of be­ing a maker of his­tory. When he de­clines to at­tend the Supreme Court ses­sions, his lawyer asks if there’s any­thing he’d like to say to the jus­tices. Richard thinks a mo­ment, then nods. “Tell them I love my wife,” he says.

One of the great strengths of this quiet, unas­sum­ing movie is the rel­a­tive anonymity of its cast. Put Matthew McConaughey (he was in Ni­chols’ Mud) in the role of Richard, and the whole thing would be on a dif­fer­ent foot­ing. But the Aus­tralian ac­tor/di­rec­tor Joel Edger­ton (The Gift) is still rel­a­tively un­known here, as is the lovely, lu­mi­nous Ethiopian-Irish ac­tress Ruth Negga. The only mar­quee name to ap­pear is Michael Shan­non (Take Shel­ter), a Ni­chols reg­u­lar, who jolts the film’s sur­face when he turns up as a Life mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­pher. But Shan­non is so good that he quickly man­ages to blend in with the spirit of the piece.

In an Amer­ica where racism has lately re­turned to the front burner with po­lice shoot­ings, Black Lives Mat­ter, and a tur­bu­lent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Lov­ing makes a quiet and mov­ing state­ment on a sub­ject that seems set­tled to­day, but was any­thing but not so many years ago. — Jonathan Richards

Love wins: Ruth Negga and Joel Edger­ton

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