Jeff Nichols’ movies all seem to be about normal people that find themselves pushed into extraordinary circumstances. It was the Bard who said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”, and looking at Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special, it’s clear that Jeff Nichols’ protagonists all seem to fall into the thrust-upon-them category.
With this in mind, it’s not that surprising that Richard and Mildred Loving are very reluctant revolutionaries (or at least that’s how they come across in Jeff Nichols’ retelling). They’re just two people that love each other and want to be allowed to live the quiet life that they’ve chosen for themselves. It was the socio-political climate around them that pushed them into the spotlight and the history books.
This push begins in 1958 when Mildred (Ruth Negga) learns she’s pregnant and Richard (Joel Edgerton) sensibly decides that they should be married. The problem is that Richard was white and Mildred was black, and such a union was illegal in Virginia at the time, in violation of the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. Luckily, that was a problem with a seemingly simple solution: a two-hour drive into Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was perfectly legal.
Richard and Mildred presumably thought no one would notice or care that they were living together as man and wife in rural Caroline County, Virginia, despite the law forbidding it. However, an anonymous tip alerts authorities, and the county sheriff and two deputies burst into their home while they’re sleeping to arrest them in the middle of the night.
Let me pause here and acknowledge that this scene (featured in the trailer) strikes me as something dramatized for effect. The naively innocent couple, wide-eyed and confused. The overtly and confidently racist authorities. Breaking into their home while they’re asleep in bed, making it an uncomfortably personal invasion of their marriage, in every sense of the word. This scene was clearly something made up by Nichols to help get his point across, right? Apparently not. According to The New York Times, reporting on Mildred Loving’s death in 2008, that scene is word-for-word how it happened, at least according to the Loving’s themselves.
The Loving’s are arrested and sentenced to a year in jail, which they plead down to probation provided they promise to leave Virginia and not return to the state together for at least 25 years. They first break the terms of this probation for the birth of their child, as Richard’s mother was a midwife and they wanted her to deliver their baby. That lands them back in front of a judge, who releases them with a stern warning. They’re tempted to break the terms of their probation again years later, when they decide that they just don’t want to keep living in the urban D.C. environment when they’re born and raised country folk at heart. This provokes Mildred to write a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on a whim, which leads to a call from an ACLU lawyer, and the landmark Supreme Court case is built from there.
While this story does build toward the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, this is very much *not* a court room drama. Outside of the early scenes where a local judge gives them their sentence to stay out of Virginia, we barely see the inside of a court room in this movie, and considering how many appeals are involved getting a case before the Supreme Court and how many lower courts had to hear this case before it got there, that’s surprising and worth noting. The focus of the movie is instead the people and their relationship. Like I alluded earlier, while the Lovings’ story eventually got them nationally recognized and brought about this landmark victory for Civil Rights, they really just wanted to live their lives, raise their kids, and not bother anybody. I’d be willing to bet that if the county sheriff who arrested them in 1958 had agreed to just look the other way, the Loving’s would’ve happily agreed to that.
Regardless of how accurate of a portrayal that may be – and apparently it’s pretty much how they viewed themselves, by all accounts – it’s effective in a dramatic sense, because it shows that the Loving’s view their relationship as not a big deal. They didn’t see themselves as this ideal couple to be held up as an example to show the American people how backwards these anti-miscegenation laws were; they never felt the need to explain their relationship (because why would they?) and neither does the movie. To them, and to the movie, it’s as simple as they love each other and they should be together. Period, Amen.
I think this is reflected, not just in the movie’s chosen focus, but also in the performances. Let me back up and say that I completely understand how much Loving appears on the surface to be a finger-quotes “Oscar bait” movie, and I appreciate how one might assume it would be pompous and aggrandizing. And in case I haven’t been clear, I want to stress that the movie is definitely not that, and I think Joel Edgerton’s and Ruth Negga’s performances are the clearest indication of the movie’s tone. In the highly-dramatized “Oscar-bait” version of this movie, I’m sure both Richard and Mildred would get their fair share of melodramatic, ostentatious, over-the-top speeches or teary, emotionally-charged exchanges that would act as their Oscar clips. And we really don’t get that here. Instead, both performances are subtle, beautifully understated, and – most importantly – tonally appropriate. I appreciate a teary, emotionally-charged moment as much as the next guy – don’t get me wrong – but they can sometimes feel… inauthentic, and in this particular movie, they would be inauthentic. Instead, Edgerton’s and Negga’s restrained performances are perfectly-suited to the restrained narrative that they’re confined to.
There’s a great image that Nichols returns to periodically throughout the movie of Richard laying brick. One of the very first scenes of the movie is Richard promising Mildred he’s going to build them a house, and shortly after, we cut to a close up of Richard applying concrete to a cinderblock. It’s a brief trick for the audience, as we assume that he’s physically building their home in that moment, but then it’s revealed Richard is actually a construction worker, and he’s just a part of a team building a random house. But Nichols keeps coming back to this close up of Richard laying brick, and after one such moment, Richard takes a step back away from his work and appears perturbed. The way I read this moment – regardless of whether or not this is what Nichols intended – is that Richard no longer feels like he’s building a home, and instead just feels like he’s building a wall, and those two feel at odds with each other. And in this moment of clarity, Richard decides what he wants his marriage to be – in a “part of the problem or part of the solution” sense, building the wall or tearing it down.
Reluctant as they may be, Richard and Mildred decide that their marriage, their children, and the life they want for themselves were worth fighting for.