Loving v. Virginia, from 1967, is well known to civil rights lawyers and civil liberties buffs like me. While I knew the basic facts–that an interracial couple had sued and their victory did away with anti-miscegenation laws for all time–I did not know about the lives of the plaintiffs. I thank Jeff Nichols for letting me know in his thoughtful and extremely understated film Loving (thankfully, the couple had an incredibly ironic last name–Lipschitz wouldn’t have done it).
Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) lived in a part of Virginia that didn’t have that much of a problem with mixed race marriages. We don’t know how their families dealt with the relationship, but her family is accepting of him and mostly his mother is accepting of her. Who isn’t accepting is the county sheriff, who gets a tip that they’ve gone off to D.C. to marry and when they get back they are arrested.
They accept a plea bargain that lets them avoid jail time as long as they get out of the state and don’t come back at the same time. They sneak back for the birth of a child and get caught again, but are let go. Eventually Negga can’t take city life and they move back to a different county in the middle of absolute nowhere. She decides to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes on her letter to the ACLU (imagine such a letter to Jefferson Sessions, who probably still believes in anti-miscegenation laws) and she soon has lawyers tackling the case.
What makes Loving fantastic is what it’s not. The Lovings were simple people, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. He worked construction, she kept house, and while literate, they were not highly educated and didn’t have much to say. I think of one scene where Edgerton comes home to find a TV crew in the house. He doesn’t like it, but Negga tells him she thinks it will help. In a lesser movie he would have given a speech about how they don’t have to have their privacy invaded, ya da ya da, but the man was incapable of such a thing, and has nothing to say. His silence speaks more than a phony speech.
Dignity is a word that is thrown around a lot, and in the case of black people can be a double-edged compliment (Sidney Poitier was frequently called “dignified” by people who had no other compliment to pay him) but in Loving, these two people are dignified. They go through with it because they love each other. They will be helping a lot of other people (Negga seems more interested than that than Edgerton) but most of all is the simple truth that they love each other and want to live together as husband and wife like anybody else. Try to keep a dry eye when the lawyer asks Edgerton if he wants him to say anything on his behalf to the Supreme Court: “Just tell the judge I love my wife,” is all he wants to say (though it’s not shown, the lawyer did say that).
Nichols, writer and director of a number of equally quiet and thoughtful indies (Midnight Special being a loud outlier) turns out to be a perfect person for this assignment. That may hurt Edgerton and Negga for awards, because they have no big scenery chewing moments, (no “Oscar clip,” as they say) but should be remembered. This film is also extremely timely, as it provided a basis for the recent gay marriage ruling (the unanimous decision by Earl Warren said that “marriage is an inherent right”) and that so many of our rights are under threat of being rolled back that we could use a reminder of those who fought and won these rights in the first place.
Loving is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Every American should see it.