It's hard to imagine a lower-key contender for year-end awards attention than Loving. The subject is a landmark in civil rights: the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the movie features no dramatic scenes of courtroom rhetoric and no swelling music of triumph. We get our sole glimpse of the Supreme Court when the Lovings' attorneys (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) step inside. As they prepare to begin their arguments, the scene fades to black.
Why? Well, for one thing, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the Virginia couple this case was about, chose not to enter the courtroom. For another, we don't need to hear the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers' arguments, or the state's rebuttal, because the film has already made a quietly eloquent case for individuals' freedom to marry the person they love.
As portrayed here by two highly skilled actors (and backed up by the historical record), the Lovings weren't firebrand activists. They were shy, private people who fought the law because they preferred not to have sheriff's deputies burst into their bedroom and drag them off to jail.
This actually happens in the first third of the film, and it's a jarring, enraging, painfully effective scene. First, however, writer-director Jeff Nichols takes the time to establish the social context of the Lovings' romance in rural Caroline County.
Nichols is known for his rich, detailed portraits of Southern life in films such as Mud and Shotgun Stories, and he brings that experience to bear here. His longtime cinematographer, Adam Stone, gives ample attention to the verdant landscape where Richard hopes to build the family home. We see how well Richard fits into Mildred's extended family, drag racing and trading jokes at the dinner table.
So when county officials tell Richard condescendingly that he chooses to socialize with African Americans only because he's a poor white who doesn't "know any better," the inhumanity of their segregationist ideology is glaring. And when the Lovings move to Washington, D.C. — where their marriage is legal — to avoid further persecution, it's equally clear why the growing family doesn't adjust easily to urban living, and why they'll ultimately risk their freedom to return home.
This is a showing movie, not a telling movie: The bond between the Lovings is all in their body language. Richard, in particular, is much better with his hands than with words. Edgerton makes him transparent to us, conveying the man's smoldering frustration as he realizes he lacks the tools he needs to protect his family.
Mildred is better equipped for the challenge; it's she who writes the letter to Robert F. Kennedy that alerts the ACLU to the couple's plight. With the doe eyes of a silent-film star, Negga is playful and charismatic in the role of a woman who stands by her man without self-abnegation.
Like the couple, the film is soft-spoken, and it's minimalist in its focus on the Lovings. Comic actor Kroll has a few good scenes as lawyer Bernard Cohen, who's clearly out of his element in the South, but his character isn't developed. Moviegoers seeking a rousing, sweeping film about the civil rights struggle won't find it here.
But they will find a compelling portrait of the bond between two people. For the bigger story behind the Loving case, locals can turn to the work of a Vermonter who's thanked in the film's credits: Phyl Newbeck, author of the comprehensive study Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving. Her work and this film stand as powerful reminders that certain rights shouldn't be taken for granted — and need our protection, now and always.