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Loving Is History at its Best

The movie shows how one couple overturned a racist law—without the usual grand speeches.

Focus Features

It’s very late in Loving that Joel Edgerton’s Oscar-worthy moment happens. His character, Richard Loving, is standing on a porch with his lawyer Bernard Cohen (played by Nick Kroll); they’re looking out over the farm where he’s been hiding with his wife Mildred for years. She is black and of Native descent, and he is white. They live in 1960s Virginia, where there is an anti-miscegenation law. Cohen asks him if there’s anything he’d like the Supreme Court to know, as they decide the historic case that will forever bear Richard Perry Loving’s name. Edgerton gives him a beady, pained look before replying, “Tell them I love my wife.”

At that particular juncture in the script, I’d imagine there’s some sort of notation: “Cue audience tears.” It has this effect even though we haven’t gotten a full speech, just that one short line.

Hollywood versions of watershed moments in American history are generally high-minded shlock. JFK, The People vs. Larry Flynt, even Lincoln: all of these boast excellent performances in scripts that are ultimately very conventional, even conservative. Self-congratulatory soliloquies, for instance, are a mainstay of historical scripts, because actors like speeches and they are good for the Oscar montage. Very little of that happens in Loving, even though the film is definitely Oscar-bait. It tells the story of a man and woman so in love they will defy a racist law to stay together and find their way into a legal system, to see that other interracial couples will be able to do the same. That tale of triumph against adversity makes it feel tailor-made for awards and acclaim. Its poster bears the tagline “All Love Is Created Equal.” And, though no one producing this film knew that this would happen, it is hitting theaters just at a moment when America—especially white America—is desperate to remember something good about itself. Many white Americans, such as Richard, and the couple’s lawyers, get to be unequivocal heroes of this story.

But its cast, if not exactly unknown, isn’t the usual Nicole-Kidman-and-Tom-Hanks A-list medley either. There is Edgerton, whose looks are not movie-star handsome. He seems pretty intent to leaving Richard’s rough edges unsmoothed, in a way that a slicker actor never could have. Ruth Negga, the Irish actress who plays Mildred Loving, similarly has to do most of her emoting by way of downcast looks and a few simple lines. Edgerton is likely to get more attention, though it is Negga’s incredible performance that makes the film so powerfully subtle. And her role is the more important one: It was Mildred who found the couple’s ACLU lawyers by way of a letter to Bobby Kennedy. Being more comfortable with the press, she became the couple’s public voice too, if a hesitant one. “I feel hopeful,” is all that Negga’s version tells a full press compliment outside a courthouse, even as Virginia courts rule against the couple.

It’s unusual that her lines are often so short. For a long time now, movie characters have generally been articulate, even chatty. Call it the influence of Woody Allen, but we have become used to characters who are well able to explain themselves to others. The loquaciousness has infected most of the well-regarded movies of the aughts, too, including those that treat historical situations, however fantastically. The reserved journalists in Spotlight often directly revealed their motives in dialogue. So did those in 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Imitation Game, and The Big Short. It’s so much easier to advance a social agenda when you have an articulate main character. In Lincoln you can simply have him pound his hand on a table and say, “I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war!”

The particular challenge of Loving is that the couple at its heart just wasn’t like that. They were not talkers. In the recent HBO documentary about them, The Loving Story, which was clearly a source of inspiration for this film right down to its shots and camera angles, Mildred and Richard say remarkably little. Their lawyers make longer speeches, and the area racist whites talk even more than they do. To the pushier, more voluble denizens of New York, or D.C., or Los Angeles, their reserve might make the Lovings look somehow deficient, like they were less in control of their own situation than all the others who surround them. This is a misreading of the Lovings, I think. Articulateness is not the only way that intelligence manifests itself.

To his credit Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) who wrote and directed here, seems to have understood that problem from the start. For the most part, his film not only sympathizes with the Lovings’ situation but actively understands it. By making sure that only very little of the action unfolds in an actual courtroom, Nichols manages to keep the film from marginalizing the Lovings in their own experience. Their family life, which is after all what they were seeking to protect, is given center stage, although racism still chases after them, even in allegedly tolerant areas.

In another sort of movie, we’d have met them chiefly on the courthouse steps, their lawyers portrayed as the heroes, shown agonizing through late nights at the office trying to figure out the right argument to get the court to listen. Here, though the lawyers are given the unquestionable luster of heroism, there is something beautiful about the way Edgerton slumps in his chair as a young Cohen tries to convince him to get arrested again for a strategic legal reason. In context, the audience knows he’s right to resist the idea. Once you have seen how frightening the couple’s first arrest was, there is no one who could fault them for not wanting to repeat the experience.

Occasionally, though, the film makes snips and alterations to the historical record that seem designed to enhance the Lovings’ helplessness. The film tells us, for example, that after Mildred wrote her letter to Bobby Kennedy, Bernard Cohen reached out to her. She nonetheless persists in believing that Kennedy sent the lawyers to her, a belief that is presented in the film as a kind of naiveté about how the system works. From the documentary we know that actually Kennedy referred her to the ACLU, and that Loving wrote a second letter to them. It’s a small change, but as a measure of the Lovings’ persistence against a system that was stacked against them, an important distinction.

In other words, Mildred was determined to change the law more than just for herself. Although the film eventually makes this clear, at the beginning of the fight we’re left with the impression that she has stumbled unknowingly into the system, in a way that doesn’t seem to have been actually true. There is an unfortunate side effect of being a person of few words: Sometimes people will assume you are less intelligent than you are. Americans believe, for better and for worse, that talking is an integral part of democratic participation. The Lovings proved otherwise. They proved that sometimes quiet reserve can be a most powerful way to use your voice. And that the effect of a simple sentence, the effect of a simple, “I love my wife,” can have the force of constitutional law.