The title Loving may seem a rough fit for a movie made by Jeff Nichols, whose previous work includes Take Shelter and Mud. But Richard and Mildred Loving were the names of the real-life couple who inspired his new film; in the late 1950s they were forbidden to love and marry by the state of Virginia. And Nichols, who has elastic gifts, has made a gracefully classical film about the Lovings, who were arrested because they were an interracial couple living in a state that still had on its books an anti-miscegenation statute that many whites believed was decreed by God himself.
How the couple, with help from two canny ACLU lawyers working pro bono, managed to overturn that statute and in the process change the U.S. Constitution makes a great story. But though Bobby Kennedy does get on the blower for a quick message to Mildred, Loving is the furthest thing from a triumphalist courtroom thriller. It's an intimate domestic drama about race in America, not Race in America, via a large-hearted portrait of two profoundly apolitical people who wanted to live with the same basic rights as those enjoyed by white Americans. Like them, Loving is modest, quiet and deep. Like all Nichols' work with his longtime cinematographer, Adam Stone, the film highlights the lush beauty of the rural American South.
Nichols tells this stirring story with a Southerner's rich feel for the complexities of a region too often dismissed as a capital of crude racism. Bigots have their day in Loving, but in the film's tranquil opening scenes, the director sets up the casually integrated community of Central Point that's home to Richard (Joel Edgerton), a white bricklayer, and Mildred (Ruth Negga), a homemaker who's half black and half Native American. Their ethnically mixed peers take Mildred's pregnancy and their marriage (in that order) in stride. Poverty in Loving is never treated as disabling; the Lovings get on with their plans, helped without fanfare by family and friends. But the misgivings of their parents (Sharon Blackwood is wonderfully spare as Richard's dour mother) are confirmed when sheriff's deputies show up in the middle of the night to arrest them.
Thrown into jail and then banished for 25 years from the Comonwealth of Virginia by a judge, the two move to Washington, D.C., where they raise three children. But Mildred constantly pines for home and family, and it's here that Nichols subtly shifts our attention from Richard, a loving husband nevertheless possessed of his mother's stubbornly taciturn temperament, to Mildred, beautifully underplayed by Negga as an unassuming but steely activist who is more willing than her husband to solicit help and compromise where needed. Comedians Nick Kroll and Jon Bass are mischievously cast as the ACLU lawyers who leap on this opportunity to score big with the Supreme Court, and the long and thorny obstacle race to victory quickens the pace but never strays from the point of view of the Lovings. Michael Shannon, by this point a virtual muse for Nichols, gets in a puckish quickie as the Life photographer who catches the money shot of Richard and Mildred on the couch, giggling at a television sitcom in a rare moment of unguarded happiness.
That photo became a famous Life cover, but not famous enough to make the Lovings' fight a textbook case today. Given the import of Loving v. Virginia for the civil rights of minority Americans (on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court struck down all anti-miscegenation laws), its disappearance from the history books is hard to explain. Nichols is not the first to make a film about the Lovings; in fact the idea for Loving sprang from Nancy Buirski's HBO documentary The Loving Story. With this lovely, empathetic account of their struggle, Nichols restores the couple's brave moment to history.