The historical drama ‘Loving’ lives up to its name
Written and directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga
"Loving” – “Your blood doesn’t know what it wants to be.”
In 1958, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) utters these words to Virginia bricklayer Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), because he, a white man, married Mildred (Ruth Negga), a black woman. In that place and at that time, interracial marriages were illegal. In 2016, Virginia’s old state law does not even seem possible, but the sheriff arrested Richard and Mildred for exactly that reason.
Jeff Nichols – known for slow burning thrillers like “Take Shelter” (2011) and “Midnight Special” (2016) – writes and directs his first movie based upon a true story. Even though “Loving” is a historical drama, Nichols’ signature touch gives the film an edge, bathed in quiet intensity.
Now, the movie opens with a moment that is the opposite of intense and is best described by the film’s title. Shortly after dusk, Richard and Mildred sit on a porch and exchange tender verbal and nonverbal cues, and the scene clearly conveys that they enjoy a devoted, caring relationship. A few scenes later, he takes her to a lush field and proclaims that he will build a house for them, and the camera slowly moves towards her face that captures pure joy. Despite knowing Virginia’s marriage laws, they decide to travel out of state and get hitched, but the harsh legal rules quickly follow them when they return.
Although Nichols could present several angles of Richard and Mildred’s story, he smartly focuses on their innermost perseverance and the personal toll that the law took on their family for years. In the beginning, Richard appears to have all the answers (for their relationship) until their legal troubles start. Edgerton’s shifts Richard’s outlook from self-assurance to fear and doubt, as the consequences of their decision are too large for him to absorb. At that point Negga’s Mildred develops a tranquil strength and looks for legal means to right the wrong-headed law. The film absolutely depicts their desire for a happy, legal existence within their home state, but they express it very differently. While Richard feels overwhelmed and regularly looks over his shoulder for the law’s long arm to grab him by the neck, Mildred steps out of her comfort zone to pursue outside legal help.
Nichols settles into his comfort zone as well by delivering key scenes which feature Richard’s anxiety. For instance, while heading across the border into Virginia at night, Richard and Mildred’s drive on a winding country road spins like a spy film. Every car with bright lights could be law enforcement ready to ship them to prison, and much of the film keeps this overall uneasiness.
Conversely, Richard and Mildred push forward with an unbreakable bond and show their love with an ever-present and steady presence at home. She is the family’s caretaker, and he carries his lunch pail and yardstick-long level to and from construction sites. We see this play out repeatedly, as they are simply a family grinding through the trials of raising kids and putting food on the table. Even though they do not display much physical affection, their relationship is never in doubt.
Both Edgerton and Negga’s performances capture a rustic, authentic relationship under environmental duress but thankfully, none really exists between them. Edgerton’s work as Richard is pretty transformational, and Negga carries Mildred’s tranquil strength. Mildred certainly is the film’s soul, as she attempts to bridge her marriage with the legal means to legitimize it.
They also fight racism, but it mostly appears in the form of an occasional look that turns into a stare or a casual choice of wording. On the other hand, during the original arrest, Nichols introduces an overt racist moment when the sheriff and his deputies enter the Lovings’ front and bedroom doors.
Virginia owned warped reasons for their law, and the sheriff’s comment that Richard’s “blood doesn’t know what it wants to be” will haunt you. After the movie ended, I clearly wished that 1958 was 200 years ago. Sadly, it is not, but “Loving” presents a recent history lesson about a devoted couple which will resonate well into the future.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.