The most fascinating thing about Loving, Jeff Nichols’ drama about precedent-setting interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving, is the repeated revelation that no one in Virginia would have cared about their relationship if they hadn’t had the temerity to get legally married. In Nichols’ version of the story, Richard (Joel Edgerton, one of the best parts of Nichols’ Midnight Special) and Mildred (Preacher’s Ruth Negga, the best part of Loving) seem completely unaware of the legal issues they face as a white man and a black woman cohabiting in 1958 Virginia. They act like any other doting couple in public, and while their minor public displays of affection occasionally draw the slightest side-eyes from onlookers, no one confronts them until Mildred gets pregnant, they get married in Washington, DC, and Richard starts making plans to move them out of Mildred’s parents’ home and into their own place.
Then suddenly there’s a middle-of-the-night raid by stone-faced white lawmen, and both Lovings wind up jailed, then ordered to leave Virginia, or face prison time. From there, Nichols acknowledges the slow-building media storm around them, as their legal case against Virginia gradually creeps up to the Supreme Court. But he keeps the focus small, mostly looking in on their relationship and family ties, and leaving the lawyers and the courts offscreen.
There's a dramatic relevance in the fact that Richard works in construction: Nichols returns again and again to images of him slathering concrete blocks with mortar and patently adding the next layer, building up walls one slab at a time. That's what Loving's story feels like as a whole: a slow accretion of incident and development over time, inevitably and without major drama. The approach, much like the similar take on history in Clint Eastwood's recent Sully, is respectful, patient, and adult. Both films lack the big musical cues and screaming Oscar-bait speeches that usually dot prestige dramas about discrimination, injustice, and major historical shifts. They both feel like history as it actually happens: unrushed, messy, and lacking in thematic statements and neatly delivered morals. But like Sully, Loving can be too respectful, to the point of feeling sleepy and detached. They're both stolid movies that skip hyperbole and histrionics, but don't replace those things with an alternate form of energy.
Instead, Loving finds an admirable portrait of a long-term couple living an ordinary life, even while their names are being used for extraordinary purposes. Nichols finds the irony and faint ludicrousness of their situation in various ways, as when Mildred's sister bitterly scolds Richard for marrying his pregnant girlfriend. In any other movie, their marriage would be a symbol of their mutual love and devotion; here, a handful of characters tell him he was just being foolish, selfish, and shortsighted by not keeping Mildred as his girl on the side. It's hard for a modern audience to follow the logic, just as it's hard to accept the local sheriff delivering a polemic on how Richard's upbringing among black workers has resulted in "blood [that] doesn't know what it wants to be." It's one thing to see antiquated ideas pilloried on-screen; it's another to see ideas this alien being teased out through example, and presented as truth. Sometimes it's just hard to relate to Loving, which makes it all the more fascinating.
There's a weird streak of bright, almost Coen brothers-esque humor running through Loving, mostly when dealing with the ACLU's sharp city lawyers, who have no defense against Richard's sullen, naïve recalcitrance, or Mildred's polite deference to her husband. The Lovings aren't modern American movie characters, with a sense of inviolate entitlement and determination to make a difference. They're quiet country people who want to be left alone to raise their kids. They aren't always sympathetic. Edgerton plays Richard as devoted, but neither imaginative nor particularly bright. There's a head-down mulish stubbornness to Edgerton's performance, and an uneducated sulkiness to Nichols' dialogue. Negga plays Mildred as more canny and ambitious, but her dialogue is so minimal, she has to convey much of the character solely through her expressive eyes and light-up smile. Her success at this delicate role makes her the heart of the film, whether she's meant to be or not.
But Loving's strengths aren't entirely based in the characters. As always, Nichols and his regular cinematographer, Adam Stone, shoot with a chilly, subdued precision that feels a little clinical, but makes every shot feel deliberate and meaningful, even if it's just a grasshopper in a field, or a brick lying on grass. The film's purposefulness makes it feel even more like one of Richard's concrete-slab walls. Loving is the polar opposite of the kind of explosive, violent civil-rights battle in Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation. It's more about the inevitability of social change, and about the way polite stubbornness and refusal — or even inability — to compromise can be as powerful over the long term as the will to use force in a fight. Loving is more about dogged devotion than excitement or action. It's a patient film, and it requires some patience from its audience. But its rewards are gentle and winning. For once, a cinematic history lesson doesn't feel artificial and processed in every pore.