History was made – not by grandstanding or with vitriol … all but in a matter of fact manner, without too much fuss or bother. In this regard, Loving is different to most other equal rights movies, which play on showcase trials, eloquent speeches and virulent campaigning. It is a slow burn film from acclaimed writer and director Jeff Nichols (Mud) that packs punch.
Loving celebrates the real-life courage and commitment of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (played by a meek Joel Edgerton and a respectful Ruth Negga), who fell in love and were married in 1958. The couple had grown up in Central Point, a small town in Virginia that was more integrated than surrounding areas in America’s South. Yet it was the state of Virginia, where they were making their home and starting a family, that first jailed and then banished them for defying its law against interracial marriage. He was white and she African-American and Native-American. The pair was forced to relocate to the inner city of Washington, D.C. While relatives made them feel welcome there, the more urban environment did not feel like home to them, especially not to Mildred, who came from a close-knit family and community. Ultimately, the pull of their roots in Virginia would spur Mildred to try to find a way back. Their civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
As I suggested at the outset, this was not a couple set on bluster and bombast. They were not activists – they merely expected that their fully legal marriage in Washington, D.C. would suffice for them to live peacefully in their hometown. Richard and Mildred and their family simply wanted to be left alone, to live a quiet, hard-working life, but at that time, in that place, that was not what happened.
In 2008, the surviving member of the couple passed away. Reading about Mildred, documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski was moved by the Lovings’ unshakable devotion to one another – and by the contemporary relevance of their case. Buirski decided to make a documentary feature about Richard and Mildred Loving. Her research led her to television news producer Hope Ryden, who had spent hours filming the Lovings at home in 1965 and then returned in 1967 for American ABC TV to profile them on the eve of the ruling. That footage and other archival resources, including luminous photos by Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet, were utilised by Buirski in writing, producing and directing The Loving Story. The documentary played at festivals in 2011, before being shown on HBO on Valentine’s Day the following year. It won a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award, among other honours.
One of those who saw it was Academy Award winning actor Colin Firth. Buirski had been in contact with Firth regarding a feature version of the story after learning from Firth’s wife Livia of his interest in American politics and social history. By 2009, Buirski and Firth were brainstorming a narrative structure and began working on a screenplay. Firth later launched a production company, whose first project was what turned out to be this feature. Nichols came on board, drawn to Richard and Mildred’s quiet determination to live and love as they chose. Nichols envisioned a feature that followed Richard and Mildred Loving as they weathered the uncertainty of the years 1958 to 1967, rather than one that recorded their march into the history books.
And so it turned out – this is an intimate story about a loving couple, both in name and nature. It is as much about what is unsaid as what is spoken aloud. Ruth Negga’s expressions, the nuances of her character, are on show for all to see, but she does so with subtlety. It is a layered, measured performance as is Edgerton’s, although his character is less accessible (he feels, but says very little). Not a great deal happens and yet there is much meaning in the seemingly mundane. The longer the film goes, the more this strikes you. Jeff Nichols’ favourite Michael Shannon plays a small but affecting role as the Life photographer whose iconic pic took the Lovings’ story to the world.
Loving is a decidedly different way of telling an important story – I say different because of the sensitive way the writer and director has handled the material. The small episodes depicted leave an indelible impression. This is the sort of film that says to me that intelligent material is anything but about bells and whistles and hoopla. The story stays with you long after you exit the cinema. Rated PG, Loving scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga
Release Date: 16 March 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television