Film & Television

‘Loving’ — A Historic Case and a Personal Love Story

Three weeks ago, I wrote about Denial, a movie that dealt with one of the most tragic events in human history, and did so, not with gruesome reenactments, but through a court-based intellectual exercise. This week, I’m going to tell you about a film that dramatizes one of our nation’s most significant Supreme Court cases, but spends virtually no time in the courtroom itself.

Instead, it focuses almost entirely on one family’s everyday life and intimate, personal story.

Loving, the new movie written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is based on the true case of Mildred and Richard Loving. The two grew up together and fell in love in Central Point, Virginia, a working-class town that was less segregated than many of its neighboring communities. When Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard convinces her to go with him to Washington, DC, where they can legally marry. Back home, however, they are arrested and put in jail for a tense (and in Mildred’s case, truly threatening) weekend until a judge can hear their case. Although their sentences are commuted, they are ordered to dissolve their marriage or leave the state. They cannot return together for 25 years or they will be put in prison.

Mildred and Richard move in with friends in Washington, but life there is very different from the peace and quiet they both cherished. Mildred, especially, longs to return and raise her growing family back home. As the civil rights movement takes center stage, she writes to Robert Kennedy, and he in turn refers her situation to the ACLU. This eventually leads to the historic 1967 case Loving vs. State of Virginia. The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court Justices determined that Virginia’s prohibition of mixed-race marriages was unconstitutional. They determined that marriage was an unalienable right, and the ruling ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.

Although Loving does dramatize some of the couple’s legal struggles, the movie focuses most on the two people and the unassuming life they’re trying to live together. By doing so, Nichols makes the story about what was fair, rather than what was legal.

You can’t help but root for Richard and, especially for, Mildred.

The luminous young actress Ruth Negga is simply marvelous as Mildred. She was born in Ethiopia, but raised in Ireland, and although a relative newcomer for U.S. audiences, she has earned international honors, including an Olivier nomination (the U.K. equivalent of a Tony Award). She currently plays Tulip, the “badass ex,” in AMC’s supernatural series Preacher. But, her work in Loving is so impressive — and so deeply moving — that I think we can safely assume there will be great roles in her future. In the course of the film, she evolves from a rather shy local girl to a courageous, determined and articulate force for change.

It helps, of course, that Nichols has given Negga some of the movie’s most powerful speeches. “We may lose the small battles,” she tells a sympathetic photographer from Life magazine, “But, win the big war.” She keeps her husband from losing hope by reminding him, “I know we have some enemies. But we have some friends too.”

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