Imagine falling in love with someone, getting married and having a baby or two. For many people that is the dream but for Richard and Mildred Loving it was a nightmare of racism and injustice.
Based on a true story, “Loving” begins with Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), an African-American woman, telling her white boyfriend Richard Loving that she is pregnant. The place is a small county in Virginia, the year is 1958 and because the state’s anti-miscegenation laws made interracial marriage illegal, the pair skipped to neighbouring Washington, DC to tie the knot. “There’s less red tape there,” Richard says.
Soon word spreads and the pair are arrested in the middle of the night, rousted from a deep sleep for the crime of being married. “You know better, don’t you?” asks the Sheriff (Marton Csokas). “Maybe you don’t.” In exchange for a one year suspended sentence they either must divorce or leave the state and not return, together, for 25 years. “All we got to do is keep to ourselves for a while and this will blow over,” says Richard.
Reluctantly they leave for DC but when they return home to have their baby in secret they are arrested a second time. Told, “Cohabitating as man and wife is against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth,” the pair leave Virginia permanently. Years later Mildred, inspired by the civil rights march on TV, writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney general, asking if he can have a look at their case. Kennedy forwards the letter to Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a young American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, who formulates a risky plan to move the fight from a racist Virginia country court to the Supreme Court in a case that would alter the constitution of the United States. Richard eloquently and potently sums up the defense in one simple sentence: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”
“Loving” is an important slice of American history told in a quiet, heartfelt way. Director Jeff Nicholls doesn’t clog up the story with dialogue. Instead he follows the first rule of filmmaking, show me, don’t tell me. For instance, when Mildred and Richard leave Virginia for the less-than-bucolic DC, the looks on the actor’s faces tell the tale, no words required. He allows the performances to underscore the potency of the story. Watch the way Mildred and Richard respond to one another physically after the arrests. Their tentative public displays of affection shows the fear that comes along with being told your relationship is illegal and wrong. It’s subtle, beautiful acting.
In private they can be themselves. A recreation of a Life Magazine photo of the real couple sitting together, laughing, watching TV is charmingly realized. It’s warm and intimate, the very picture of a happy couple who have put their hardships aside for a fleeting moment.
“Loving” is a understated movie. Some have suggested it may have benefitted from a bit more anger, but that, for me, would feel like a betrayal to the characters who fight the good fight with dignity and love.
The movie is simultaneously a powerful look at a different time and, when it asks, “What is the danger to the state of Virginia from interracial marriage?” a timely and universal reminder that Loving v. Virginia was just one of many steps humanity has to take before everyone is afforded fundamental rights.