This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” is that rare mainstream film that provokes frustration and rage without resorting to monologues or melodrama. The two people at the center of this period drama aren’t prone to long speeches. They’re quiet, conservative, almost shy folk who ended up at the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the ‘60s by virtue of falling in love, getting married and having children. Nichols’ approach is careful, reserved and deeply considerate of the human story he’s trying to tell. There’s no sense of exploitation here—if anything, he’s almost too reverential in his unwillingness to show any flaws. One can sense a director’s understandable trepidation in telling the story of two private people whose life was made very public. What’s most important to Nichols’ vision is how much trust he has in his two leads, and what they give back to him in exchange for that trust.
In 1958 Virginia, a reserved mechanic and construction worker named Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married his pregnant girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga). The two drove to Washington, D.C. to make their union official, and Richard bought an acre of land near Mildred’s family home on which he planned to build a house. They hoped that Richard’s mother would deliver their first child, and that they would live in peace in a beautiful, country setting.
In the middle of the night, all of that changed. Officers broke into their home, arresting both Richard and Mildred, stating that their marriage license was no good in Virginia and that they had violated anti-miscegenation laws that stated that mixed-race couples were a violation punishable by jail time. With the assistance of a local attorney (Bill Camp), the Lovings were released under one condition: they had to leave the state of Virginia and not return for 25 years. They had to leave their families, their land, the home that they wanted to build, and the future they had seen for themselves. As the world changed with the rise of the civil rights movement, an opportunity arose to use the Lovings' case to finally eliminate the racist laws still destroying lives in part of the country.
From the opening scenes, there’s a tactile, lived-in quality to Nichols’ filmmaking. People are always doing something with their hands—cleaning a kitchen, laying brick for a house, working on a car, etc. And there’s always something in the air, from the sound of crickets to the palpable heat of the Virginia summer. Nothing here feels like a backlot. The production design and direction is so beautifully detailed that people will take it for granted. The Loving home, the cars he works on, the jail cells in which they spend the night, etc.—every element has been carefully considered but not overly highlighted. It is a masterful example of how to use time and place in a film without drawing attention to it as so many award season movies tend to do. There’s nothing flashy here.