Long before marriage between people of the same gender became a popular issue, marriage even between different races was prohibited in large sections of the United States. States throughout the South and the upper Midwest forbade marriage, cohabitation, sexual relations and even officiating at weddings between whites and non-whites. The laws identified such behavior as a threat to society and the polity.
Jeff Nichols new film “Loving” is the story of the successful challenge to these laws, a story of courage and deep feelings well told. Nichols, who strokes character development with the sure hand of revelatory brilliance, has already notably probed the capacity of human nature in “Mud” and “Take Shelter.”
“Loving” is the strong, restrained, eloquent story of two ordinary but resolute people who had the courage and support to fight the racist marriage laws of their time. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton – “Black Mass,” “The Gift”) is a working class white Southerner, a builder and car mechanic, who has fallen in love with shy, quiet African American Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga – “World War Z”). Loving fits in easily with Jeter’s family. They realize and accept their differences, working and socializing with each other as people of limited means did in the post war South.
Jeter and Loving journey from their family homes in Virginia to be able to marry in Washington, D.C. When they return, they are arrested and jailed. The police break into the young couple’s house and roust them from bed in the middle of the night. “Why are you in bed with that woman,” screams a large threatening police. “I’m his wife,” responds Mildred. “That’s no good here,” snarls the cop, hauling both of them off to jail. “We are not hurting anyone,” protests Loving. Police and the court do not see it that way.
The Lovings are able to avoid prison sentences by declaring their guilt and leaving to live in Washington, D.C. They try to raise their growing family there. But they are troubled by the effect this uprooting has on their young children. They miss the extended family and friends, the more open space of small town Virginia.
The family has the good fortune to live in a time of social change. Jeter resonates to the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s which surrounds her in Washington, D.C. She witnesses Martin Luther King’s Great March and hears the words of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Jeter contacts Kennedy’s office, which puts her in touch with two young, idealistic American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass). When Cohen and Hirschkop ask what message Loving would convey to the Justices of the highest court in the land, without hesitation Richard Loving says only “Tell them that I love my wife.”
Nichols, the midwife to memorable portraits, has fashioned a picture that is molded in the character of his protagonists: strong, single minded, virtuous and . . . loving.