For such a groundbreaking story, Jeff Nichols’ Loving, now available on DVD and Blu-ray, is notable for its silence. Although the quiet solemnity of a sparse script served Nichols well in the case of his other 2016 critical darling, Midnight Special, the historic Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision invalidating laws that prohibited interracial marriage may have required a bit more dramatic build-up. Fortunately, Loving’s two lead actors – Ruth Negga, nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and the chameleon-like Joel Edgerton – elevate the movie through their characters by tenderly tapping into the steady strength that defines their humanity.
The film begins with Mildred (Negga) and Richard (Edgerton) already deep into their courtship and it becomes immediately clear they they are very much in love. At a local street race, at a buoyant, nighttime soiree, Richard has integrated into Mildred’s black community, and nobody seems to look askance. There is little fuss, then, when Richard proposes to Mildred as though it is the most natural thing in the world – which, for this young couple, it is. Richard suggests they drive up from their home in Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. in order to get married, simply as a means of avoiding tiresome paperwork.
This is the only indication we get that there is something different about this couple – plus the subtly snide glances from a local shopkeeper, and wary comments made by Mildred’s sister. Yet perhaps Richard does anticipate trouble, as he decides to frame their marriage license over their bed as a way of defiantly declaring their relationship’s legality. Sure enough, the local police barrel into their home and drag them both to jail for unlawful cohabitation, D.C. marriage license be damned.
The Lovings are forced to move out of state in order to avoid further arrest. But then they embark on what is, by all accounts, a fairly conventional life, raising three kids while Mildred sews and cooks and Richard calmly and quietly goes about his job as a bricklayer. Yet, we can see it in their eyes: Mildred desperately wants to return home to the country, to the house Richard desperately wants to build for her. And so Mildred enlists ACLU lawyer Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) to bring their case to the Supreme Court.
In the “Making Loving” extra feature, the film’s producers insisted they specifically did not want to turn the Loving’s story into a courtroom drama. Producer Colin Firth (yeah, that Colin Firth), whose interest in American history led him to the discovery of Mildred and Richard Loving’s case while working on another film, spoke of prioritizing the tension that categorized this otherwise ordinary couple’s romance. “The menace that you feel is slow-burning,” he explained.
For Ruth Negga, the narrative developed by writer-director Nichols stood out in another way. “What attracted me was the silences,” she revealed. “They kind of lept off the page.”
Negga and Edgerton both deliver breathtaking performances that highlight these silences while imbuing them with depth and poignancy. In fact, Nick Kroll revealed in the extra features that he realized his character, Bernie Cohen, “had more lines in one scene than Richard had in the entire movie.” Negga is the one who received the (well-deserved) Oscar nomination, but Edgerton is utterly unrecognizable as Richard, affecting a reticence and wounded simplicity that speaks louder than any rousing, courtroom speech. Take it from Firth himself: “I think Joel Edgerton’s performance is one of the best performances I’ve seen on screen possibly ever,” he said.
Loving is not a flashy, rollicking civil rights anthem, but it was never supposed to be. It’s about a man and a woman who lived the life they wanted to live despite the shortcomings of their society. As told by Jeff Nichols, the heroism of Mildred and Richard Loving is admirable for its mundanity. Yes, they were warned, and they were given an explanation. Nevertheless, they persisted.