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