In Loving, quiet domesticity evolves into revolutionary political action, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special), Loving dramatizes the 1958 marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving. A white man and black woman, their union was declared illegal in Virginia (resulting in jail time for them both) and their case eventually went to the Supreme Court. It’s a story begging to be told with grandstanding, self-congratulatory fervor, but Nichols and his cast and crew will have none of it. Rather than patting itself on the back for telling such a noble tale, the movie simply wants us to feel what it might have been like to be in the Loving home.
More than anything else, this is a collection of little moments of life-building, which cinematographer Adam Stone gives a crumpled glow, as if old family snapshots have been polished and brought to life. The camera lingers on the snapping of green beans, the replacing of a car part, the ironing of shirts while holding a crying child. These are the tiny blocks of which a family life is constructed (Richard Loving, it’s worth noting, is a bricklayer) and they are the only things the Lovings are asking to be given.
Even the trauma in the movie is hushed. After being arrested in the middle of the night in their rural Virginia home, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) sadly sit in separate cells, at the mercy of the glowering sheriff and a callous judge. The “deal” they’re eventually given requires them to leave the state, and so they pack up—she significantly pregnant—and head from the pastoral Virginia countryside to a cramped neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
One of the things Loving captures most acutely is Mildred’s dismay over leaving her home and family. As she rolls her window down when they arrive on the streets of D.C., the quiet of the car’s interior gives way to urban clamor. Flourishing fields are exchanged for a single tree outside their front stoop, struggling to survive on the sidewalk. The sound of crickets—so prominent on the soundtrack earlier—is replaced with that of police sirens. Mildred literally wilts, something Negga communicates with a performance built less on dialogue than on poise and posture.
The images have a crumpled glow, as if old family snapshots have been polished and brought to life.
It’s the dispiriting urban experience that moves Mildred to make her first explicitly political act: on the advice of a friend, she writes a letter to attorney general Bobby Kennedy, which makes its way to the American Civil Liberties Union. One day, amidst housework, Mildred gets a call from an ACLU rep offering to take their case, life-changing news that Negga handles with extraordinary restraint and stillness. The moment is echoed near the end of the film when Mildred receives an even greater earthquake call, and Negga once again—against every actorly urge—only allows its importance to imperceptibly register on her face.
Richard Loving is also a person of few words; in fact, Edgerton bravely goes so far as to make him inarticulate. Mildred, then, becomes the family spokesperson, and the movie takes time to consider how this emasculates her husband. I’m glad there is at least a nod to conflict between them, for otherwise Loving almost registers as a romantic fantasy—albeit one Edgerton and Negga are able to sell with their aching performances. Richard and Mildred’s love lies in how they regard each other and the way they hold hands. One of the movie’s powerhouse moments, all the more so for its ordinariness, is when Richard lays his head on Mildred’s lap to watch “The Andy Griffith Show” on television (a scene recreated from an actual Life magazine photograph of the couple at home together).
Loving’s masterstroke is its reveal of the Supreme Court decision. As we hear the lawyers’ statements on the soundtrack, we watch the Lovings, who at this point have three young children and live in a farmhouse in Virginia. She sews a dress. He mows the lawn. Their kids scurry beneath a tree, trying to make a rope swing. A good life can be made from such acts of care and kindness. And such a life is exactly what Loving v. Virginia would protect.