You may not yet have heard of Ruth Negga, but as awards season approaches, you will likely be seeing her on plenty of red carpets. In Loving, (which bows exclusively on Nov. 4 and then expands on Nov. 11), the true story of a Virginia couple who battled discrimination against mixed race marriage in 1958, Negga gives a quiet, understated, yet powerful performance as Mildred Loving. Her facial expressions, her soulful eyes, and her body language speak volumes.
Joel Edgerton turns in an equally subdued, yet nuanced portrayal as her husband, Richard Loving, a white construction worker with short, straw-colored hair and strong hands rough from hard labor. He’s a simple man of few words who doesn’t quite seem to understand what crime he has committed by marrying an African American woman with whom he is in love.
But this is not a flashy, action-packed, or preachy awards season film. Although it is, of course, about civil rights, it is not the story as told via marches and hate crimes (although there are a few veiled threats). Instead, director Jeff Nichols personalizes the movement by focusing on this one normal, conservative, somewhat shy couple who simply want to stay married and live in their home state near their families, and he follows their quiet, long, and slow struggle to win that right.
After eloping to Washington D.C., the Lovings return to Virginia only to be awoken one night by the sheriff, who drags them into jail for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They are told that if they want to stay married, they must move out of Virginia and stay there for 25 years, or be imprisoned. As one local sheriff tells Richard, “It’s God’s law. Leave a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin—they’re different for a reason.”
Devastated, yet resigned to obey the law, the duo leave their friends and family and move to D.C., from where Richard commutes back to Virginia daily, and Mildred suffers long days missing her husband and trying to raise their children in a city she hates. She finally writes a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and is surprised when an ambitious ACLU lawyer contacts her, seeking justice (but also a career-making opportunity), and convinces her to take their case to court. Richard isn’t interested in being a symbol for civil rights, but his wife's quiet resolve and his desire to please her convinces him to go along with the plan.
The Loving’s case, of course, did draw national attention—going all the way to the Supreme Court and landing them a feature in Life magazine. Michael Shannon plays the Life photographer in a poignant scene where he captures their everyday life together, including them on a couch and watching TV, Richard’s head nestled in Mildred’s lap.
I kept nervously waiting for something violent to happen—especially after Richard finds the Life article in his car, wrapped in a brick. I worried that Edgerton was going to get beat up by racist local thugs or Negga would get kidnapped, but I found it refreshing that the film doesn’t resort to violence to make a point, nor does it overly manipulate the viewer.
It is simply an intimate look into two human lives, almost documentarian in its detail of their world—a Coke bottle glistening in the sun, the chirping of crickets, the slop of cement on a trowel, the weariness on the face of Richard's sturdy midwife mother.
When Mildred finally gets a phone call that their case has won on appeal, her restrained reaction belies the significance of the call, but somehow feels authentic. She is a woman who finally gets what has been rightfully hers all along, and the full impact of 1967’s landmark Loving v. Virginia case, has yet to fully hit her.
Watch the trailer for Loving above and catch it in theaters starting tomorrow, Nov. 4.