With the recent election, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and increased awareness of the lingering racism that underlies so many aspects of contemporary life, it makes sense to revisit the Civil Rights Era. But so often, in their celebration of the admittedly great strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, films about that period miss the fundamental point that the famous slogan “the personal is political” underlines for us. In Jeff Nichols’ new film Loving, which stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who brought down our country’s anti-miscegenation laws in a 1967 Supreme Court victory, there are no grand sweeping images of thousands marching on Washington. Neither are the court cases themselves portrayed in any detail. Instead, Nichols focuses the camera and our attention on what is most important: the relationship between two human beings and the power of their love to conquer ignorance, hate, and stupidity.
From the beginning of the film, Nichols keeps the camera focused on the couple, their friends, and their families. We see Richard (Edgerton) working on cars and watching informal races in a multiracial environment. We notice the tensions of his world when the camera briefly shows a group of hostile white onlookers, but the moment is brief. We hear television news reports in the background giving some sense of context, but always it is in the background. What emerges from this strategy is interesting not only for its insistence on this couple’s apolitical nature, but also for its portrayal of marital love. Once they do marry and ultimately have children, the stresses of life are clearly upon them, just as they are with any married couple. The added stress of day to day racism, their forced exile from their families in Virginia, and, ultimately, a drawn out legal battle that puts them in the public eye, must have been excruciating. We see this pressure, but at their core, they are in love, and their respect, compassion, and desire for one another always push through the external forces of ignorance.
The performances in Loving are subtle and nuanced, with Edgerton giving us a down-to-earth “regular’ guy from the country and Negga offering a strong, silent wife and mother whose connection to Richard and to her family are paramount in everything she does. There are no histrionics and no melodramatic exchanges, which is remarkable considering the simmering tension that permeates the script. Our investment in this couple’s battle is such that we are tense all the way until the end, when the results that we always knew happened, do come to pass. And yet that tension does reveal itself in subtle ways.
For example there is a scene when the family are in their home in Virginia, despite a court order that they not be in that state at the same time, as a condition of their release. Richard is working on the house and Mildred is caring for the children. Suddenly, Richard hears a speeding car coming down the road. He turns to look and we see that it is a friend of theirs driving toward the house. We don’t know what is going to happen, but decades of reflection upon what did happen in the 1960s and before have us immediately understand why Richard hurries down off the ladder, tells his son to grab the rifle for him, and has everyone else get inside the house. He doesn’t scream or cry or articulate anything specific, but we know he is afraid that there is about to be some sort of attack from local racists, or a police raid, or some other disruption of all that he loves. Edgerton brilliantly encapsulates all of this history and fear and love in his performance.
Likewise, Negga is able to articulate her own stress, tensions, and fears non-verbally. Hers is a face that would have been remarkable in the Silent Era for its pure expressiveness. Here, that ability to describe a complicated state of mind with a simple glance is just uncanny.
Loving is not like Selma or 12 years a Slave—remarkable films in their own rights— because it is not about social upheaval. Loving is about the personal upheaval that is caused by an unjust system. It makes us reflect upon how our laws, policies, and systems impact ordinary people just trying to get by in life, just wanting to have and protect their families, just wanting to be with the ones they love.