Here is what you will not find in Austin director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”: sweeping political statements; federal-government-to-the-rescue feel-goodism a la “The West Wing”; sweaty lawyers thundering away in courtrooms, talking about the inherent rights of man — even though that is exactly what “Loving” is about.
Here is what you will find in “Loving:” Shots of an impossibly gorgeous Caroline County, Virginia, expertly and gently captured by Nichols and his longtime cinematographer Adam Stone; low-key performances; and a beautiful, tender love story.
Also known as one of the the most fortuitously named court cases ever, “Loving v. Virginia” pit Richard and Mildred Loving against the state of Virginia, a place they adored but which had sentenced both to a year in prison for marrying each other. Richard was white. Mildred was black.
In 1967, after several years of litigation in lower courts, the case was heard by the Supreme Court, which promptly and unanimously decriminalized interracial marriage. It was and is one of the most important civil rights cases of the late 20th century.
But what Nichols chooses to show us is the story of a working-class couple from an unusually desegregated area of Virginia. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) grew up around African-Americans; his father worked for a black man at a time when that was completely unthinkable in other parts of the country.
We first see Richard drag racing in 1958 rural Virginia with some pals, all of whom are black. Richard is quiet and kind and absolutely adores Mildred (Ruth Negga). When they decide to marry after Mildred tells Richard she is pregnant, they head up to Washington for a certificate they cannot get in their home commonwealth.
When they return to Virginia, they are dragged out of their bed at night and jailed by the local sheriff (Marton Csokas, far from a Bull Connor-esque cartoon redneck) and told that they must leave the state for more than two decades.
They head off to live in Washington. Richard lays brick, and Mildred tends to the home, but both of them miss the country and their families. Miserable, the family moves back to Virginia. Mildred decides to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their situation, and he passes the case to the ACLU. The family lives an extremely low-key life in a remote farmhouse for several years until the Supreme Court makes history. The beautifully simple final scene elegantly displays the size of the stakes, with are both simple and universal.
What will make “Loving” fascinating and graceful to some — and perhaps annoying to less patient viewers — is the fact that neither party is an activist of any kind. There are no protests. There is no organizing.
Richard was a simple man, and Edgerton plays him with stoic grace — all he wants to do is take care of his family and be left alone, declining even to see the court hear his landmark case. Negga is beautifully understated as Mildred, who is the one who chooses to quietly get the ball rolling, and even then, she and Richard have to be convinced of the quality of their case.
Their story wasn’t even all that well-known until their lawyers suggested they invite Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon, perhaps legally bound to be in every Nichols movie) into their home for a photo shoot. The photos, emotionally intimate shots that showed two people as at ease with each other as spouses can be, are deeply moving. To see these scenes is to see why the court didn’t just affirm their relationship, but did it unanimously, as if it were absurd that it should be outlawed in the first place — which, of course, it was.
In other words, love wins.
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Violet Crown