Triumphs of the human spirit don’t unfold in real life as they often do in the movies. There’s not a grand epiphany or a climactic achievement set to a swelling orchestral score. Complex problems do not have simple solutions, quickly and efficiently achieved.
Jeff Nichols’s “Loving” tells a true story of persistence and determination amid severe personal obstacles. It marks a watershed moment in the unending struggle for civil rights in the United States, the circumstances surrounding the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that overturned the state’s restrictions on interracial marriage in 1967.
But it does so with immaculate restraint, building toward its transformative climax by lodging itself within the small universe of the home built by Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), a bricklayer and homemaker, respectively, and their three children.
As a result, the impact of the injustice they face — a one-year prison sentence for their marriage that’s suspended if they agree to leave their home state and to not return jointly for 25 years — is acutely felt.
Nichols, who also wrote the script, gives his actors great room to explore the characters and he places a premium on the drama inherent in their relationship, which is greatly tested by this personal trial but blessed with steadfast devotion and commitment that remains unshakable even as it seems like the world’s conspiring against it.
Edgerton and Negga seamlessly create that strong bond, sharing small moments of aching tenderness and subdued joy while expertly conveying the fear and uncertainty that accompanies this grueling ordeal, fearing for their physical safety while the most intimate details of their lives become fodder for public consumption.
The story of “Loving” is told, in many respects, in the way they look at each other in the quiet of their bedroom or at the dinner table with their kids.
Richard rarely speaks, but Edgerton brings forth his love for Mildred from a place that feels lodged deep within his soul. Negga’s Mildred sees the profound injustice facing them for what it is, clearly and unhesitatingly, and refuses to be bowed by it. Her performance, worthy (as is Edgerton’s) of an Oscar nomination, accomplishes the difficult feat of embodying the notion of the personal being political without ever striking a false, melodramatic note.
Nichols, an accomplished filmmaker with a particularly strong aptitude for stories that defy stereotypes of the rural South (see “Shotgun Stories” or “Mud,” as two examples), amplifies the drama by emphasizing the fundamental everyday beauty of the world inhabited by the Lovings — the golden magic hour light beaming down across the Virginia fields, the cozy interiors where their family lives play out.
This is how history is made, not with a grand speech or a single bold action, but with the devotion of an ordinary husband and wife refusing to bend to injustice and committed to the long and slow process of seeing through the righting of a wrong. We’re often told that love can change the world. It sounds corny. But in the story of “Loving,” it’s true.