As the politics in this country forces everyone to reflect on racism, diversity, and tolerance, the timing couldn’t be better for filmmaker Jeff Nicholas (Mud, Midnight Special) to look back at one of the most important Civil Rights cases, which helped change at least some minds about who you should be allowed to marry.
In 1958, bricklayer Richard Perry Loving (Joel Edgerton) married his pregnant black girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga), having to drive up to Washington D.C. to do so. At the time, interracial marriage in Virginia was illegal, so the two of them are immediately thrown into jail once their secret is discovered. In order to avoid a year of prison time, they’re forced to move out of the region. Years later, as the Civil Rights movement is flourishing, the ACLU takes a look at their case with the intention of going to the Supreme Court to overrule Virginia’s laws against mixed marriage.
Obviously, this is a very different film for Nichols since it’s based on a true story and real people—many of whom are still alive. Yet, it somehow feels right that he’d tackle this material, between his own Southern roots and his proven ability to create authentic characters. As might be expected, he does a more than adequate job telling the Lovings’ story in a grounded manner.
Loving does move slower than most dramas in this vein, as Nichols deliberately shies away from the theatrics and melodrama that normally comes with such a politically-charged biopic. No one dies and even the racism one might expect directed toward the Lovings’ mixed marriage is fairly low-key compared to other movies about this era. Instead, Nichols and his entire cast handle the material in a respectful way that feels more real than another filmmaker might do.
Nichols’ casting choices continue to be interesting, first by selecting Australian actor Joel Edgerton to play Richard in a way that’s unqiue from anything we’ve seen before from the actor. He already looks very different with his tightly-cropped blonde hair, but he delivers every line with a slow Southern drawl and a grimace while having to hide his wife and their kids from the neighbors—which starts to relentlessly wear him down. Ruth Negga, whose television work on shows like Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Preacher has earned her respect among genre fans, gives a performance that’s similarly subdued but still quite brilliant. Her portrayal of Mildred is very likely to elevate her status as a dramatic actor in demand.
Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ longtime good luck charm (or possibly his muse?) does show up in a very small but important role as Grey Villet, the photographer for LIFE Magazine who took the iconic photos of the Lovings, which drew more attention to them than Richard ever wanted. A far more unconventional casting choice is Nichols getting Nick Kroll to portray their lead defense lawyer Bernie Cohen, because he brings the type of lightness to the proceedings that keeps the movie from turning into a complete downer. Having Kroll play against type actually makes you even more invested in the Lovings case.
Although the performances are all decent enough, there’s never any of the emotional fireworks you often expect in a movie like this. Maybe that’s a good thing, because it makes it more obvious that Nichols just wants to tell a good story in a respectful way rather than making a movie that’s shooting to win over Oscar voters.
Overall, Loving is one of the stronger “based on a true story” films, maybe because Jeff Nichols makes it feel more like you’re watching real lives and events rather than a big bombastic movie with lots of overwrought drama, which wouldn’t have been appropriate for what the Lovings endured and achieved. Not everyone will love it, but it’s an important moment in history, and Nichols finds a good way to shine a light on it.
Loving will open theatrically on Nov. 4, following its recent run at the Toronto International Film Festival.