Those familiar with the fight for marriage equality know that it is not a new one. Almost 50 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, a mixed-race couple living in rural Virginia made history when their case, Loving v. Virginia, challenged the Commonwealth’s Racial Integrity Act and, with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, they triumphed.
However, the tale of the Lovings started nearly 10 years earlier and writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Loving (Focus) lovingly brings the story to the big screen. It’s hard to imagine how out of step 1958 Virginia was with the rest of the evolving world. In spite of white and African American friends and neighbors meeting regularly to drag race their souped up cars or working together on construction sites, there were still lines not to be crossed.
When Richard (Joel Edgerton of Kinky Boots fame) asks his pregnant girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga) to marry him, little did they realize what they would be setting in motion. Because it was illegal for them to marry in Virginia, the couple drives to Washington, DC, accompanied by Mildred’s father Theoliver (Christopher Mann), to be married by a Justice of the Peace. Back in Virginia, asleep in their bed in Mildred’s parents’ house, they are arrested and taken to jail by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas). The next day, when Richard is released on bail, he is not permitted by law to arrange for Mildred’s release and she must stay behind bars for a few more days.
Soon there are lawyers involved, and a court date, and a sentence that involves a choice between prison time and leaving Virginia, never to return together, for 25 years. The couple moves to the more forward-thinking Washington DC, returning to Virginia once, and risking arrest, so that Richard’s midwife mother Lola (Sharon Blackwood) can deliver the first of the Loving’s three children.
Back in DC, staying with Laura (Andrene Ward-Hammond) and her husband, an increasingly despondent Mildred puts her foot down and insists they return to Virginia after one of their children is hit by a car (although he is not badly injured). Before they leave, Laura suggests that Mildred write a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy regarding putting into action “all this talk about civil rights.” Mildred’s letter makes its way to ACLU attorney Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who offers to take their case, at no expense to the Lovings.
What follows is the ongoing series of court appearances and hearings. The Lovings make an effort to lead a normal life; bricklayer Richard goes to work and Mildred raises the kids and takes care of the house. As a couple, strong-silent-type Richard and gentle, but determined, Mildred rarely raise their voices at or argue with each other. It’s Mildred who grows more accustomed to the attention, including a story in Life Magazine, while Richard struggles with it. When victory is theirs at last, they meet it with the same dignity they maintained throughout the ordeal.
Nichols deserves credit for giving this important and historical event the full-length feature film attention that it deserves. He applies a subtlety to Loving that may be attributed to both the time in which the story is set and to the director’s Southern roots. Credit is also due to Edgerton and Negga, whose nuanced performances are sure to be remembered during awards season.