Civil Rights Romance "Loving" Hits A Post-Election Nerve

Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” might be arriving in the same calendar year as his scrambled foray into science fiction, “Midnight Special,” but the two projects couldn’t be more disparate. Where his leaky, overreaching sci-fi opus gurgled across the finish line, “Loving” is a dynamo from beginning to end, confidently chronicling a real-life romance that was, at first blush, as ordinary as could be. It wasn’t, of course, eventuating in a landmark civil rights decision by the Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia), but that doesn’t stop the “Mud” filmmaker from crucially maintaining a sense of normalcy through some very abnormal, unjust circumstances.

It’s the late 1950s and 25-year-old Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and 18-year-old Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) are in love. A pregnancy hastens a probably inevitable marriage proposal and Mildred says yes, as a woman in love is wont to do. But living in rural Virginia proves a major stumbling block. Miscegenation laws mean a union between Loving, a white man, and Jeter, a black woman, would be illegal; they’ll have to travel to Washington D.C. to elope and then hope their marriage keeps under the radar.

It doesn’t.

The newlyweds face resistance from family members, grave mistreatment from local authorities, and are essentially exiled from their hometown, forced to live a hundred miles away from their familiars.

The ultimately history-making story is an obviously screen-ready one, but comes with the perils of potentially goopy melodrama. Enter Nichols, a no frills master of artful visuals and narrative restraint – and an almost serendipitous fit for the material. The result is a beautifully acted, almost always gripping account of the Loving’s story, and worthy of their graceful defiance, their self-assured fight for the rights they were so long denied.

Co-stars Edgerton and Negga smartly remain at eye level with Nichols’ low-pitched dialogue, meaning they resist the urge to overact. Instead, they elect to let the story tell itself, simply inhabiting the characters and their quiet dignity and righteous patriotism. That neither lead is American (Edgerton is Australian and Negga Ethiopian) is immaterial; their decision to submit to the real events and the people behind them proves the right one because the Loving’s story is the story of so many – and because it isn’t so far in our country’s past. We’re less than two decades removed from a prominent South Carolina university lifting its ban on interracial dating – not to mention the recent uptick in white nationalism in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House.

Surprisingly, comedian Nick Kroll is the supporting cast’s standout as the Loving’s greenhorn, ACLU-appointed attorney, with the actor swapping his typically smarmy screen presence out for a vulnerable one. But everyone from Bill Camp (hot off a career-defining performance in HBO’s “The Night Of”) to Marton Csokas to Michael Shannon do impeccable work as lesser pieces of the Loving story, each a small monument to Jeff Nichols’ gift for melding performers to characters.

If Nichols’ painting of the story in the starkest of terms – both on a narrative and visual level – is ultimately what drives his thesis home (that love is love and that this story shouldn’t have existed in the first place) it’s also what hampers it the most. The decision to go for a simple retelling gives it its power, but at over two hours long, the picture drags ever so slightly since we know where the story is going (the Supreme Court) and how it resolves.

Nevertheless, “Loving” is elegant, powerful filmmaking whose visuals alone make it an uncommonly good docudrama. (Nichols’ use of low light and silhouette to subtly strip his leads of their skin color is particularly invigorating.) The compelling story and performances only add to the feeling of period piece transcendence, making for a film that could go down among the decade’s best.

“Mud” might still be Nichols’ most memorable film, but “Loving” slots comfortably beneath it as conventional storytelling in its most muscular form.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 4, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Michael Shannon, Bill Camp
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements)