In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight.
Eventually the ACLU catches wind of this and sees this as a golden opportunity to challenge anti-miscegenation laws right up the federal chain to the Supreme Court. In steps a cock-eyed optimist lawyer (Nick Kroll, who is a bit distracting here if you happen to be a fan of his absurdist, impersonation comedy) to take up the cause. The Lovings agree to this because they simply want to be able to go home and live in peace, and also, with an innocent glint in her beautiful big eyes, as Negga’s Mildred puts it, “Maybe we can help some other people too.” Nichols’ favorite player, the incomparable Michael Shannon, steps in briefly as a Life Magazine photographer, and there’s a beauty in which the cast (Edgerton, Negga, Shannon and the three children) are left lovingly to their own devices by Nichols, who quietly elicits from them a naturalism that for a brief moment makes you feel like you were actually there at their tranquil homestead in the middle of nowhere, the crickets chirping outside, a warm breeze through an open window, Richard and Mildred curling up on the couch to watch The Andy Griffith Show with Shannon’s photographer a fly on the wall…and, ahhh….that famous shot…that showed the world just how extraordinary their ordinary love was.
Nichols works with his usual cohorts, musician David Wingo (whose score matches the mood of the scenes to a perfect degree) and cinematographer Adam Stone, to produce a wonderfully shaded and complex work whose deceptively simple aesthetics provide the calm surface upon which big ideas roil underneath. At times the film has the cadence and tone of an epic folk song, which at other times gorgeously natural and static shots of a line of trees marking the edge of a property or of Edgerton on a ladder repairing a big old beautiful barn take on the eternal “moment in time” nature of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
There’s a sturdy symbolism throughout the film where Richard Loving is always laying those bricks, stacking those blocks. Double-checking his work. Slow. Methodical. Thoughtful. It’s no surprise then the Lovings finally get to build that home Richard promised Mildred in the film’s opening scenes. But in Nichols’ assured hands, he knows not to let the audience see that home complete. The Lovings simply laid a foundation. The house is forever incomplete. We have to keep building it brick by brick every time we see injustice.
Written by David H. Schleicher