Loving: When Race and Love Collide

"Loving" Art

It’s a hot summer night in 1958 Virginia. Mildred and Richard Loving sit hand in hand on the ledge of their porch. Mildred slowly lays her head on Richard’s shoulder.

It’s a scene that’s endearing, but filled with conflicted emotions. There are crickets chirping in the background, but everything else is silent.

This is the opening scene of Jeff Nichols’s movie, “Loving,” starring Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred. Like the rest of the movie, this scene captures the quiet longing of Richard and Mildred’s love story.

The two are deeply in love and intend to marry at all costs, but there are many barriers in their way. Mildred is pregnant out of wedlock. Richard is poor and fatherless. Above all, Mildred is black and Richard is white, and they wish to marry in a state that embraces Jim Crow laws and marriage segregation.

Mildred and Richard decide to marry anyway. But they are arrested after their judge declares, “Almighty God created races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Soon, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) takes on their case and eventually brings it up to the Supreme Court.

Nichols does a stellar job as director. The movie is based on a true story, and Nichols doesn’t allow any distractions to come in the way of his raw storytelling.

Nichols gives us just enough background to know what’s going on, but the history behind “Loving” is second to its themes. The movie is compelling because although it discusses important historical events, it doesn’t feel like a history lesson.

Quietness plays a large role in the movie. Nichols captures the quiet of a Virginia summer by having long periods of narrative with no dialogue. He fills this space with the sounds of a summer night, filled with crickets, wind, and trees rustling. He also uses the country stillness to show the simplicity of the Lovings’ love story. There is no flash to their lives, so there is no unnecessary action or dialogue. Instead, the filmmaking mirrors the modesty of the Lovings life. Nichols uses simplicity to show the Lovings were just two people who wanted to live their lives in peace.

Nichols also makes the choice to start the movie in the middle of the narrative. We enter right as Richard is about to propose to Mildred, and we get no background on how they met or why they started dating—creating a sense of curiosity.

Though we wonder how this odd relationship came to be and why Mildred and Richard stayed together for so long, we are forced to ignore our curiosity and just understand that their relationship exists and will continue because they love each other infinitely.

One of the most impressive aspects of Nichols’s directing is his ability to take the viewer back in time. The costumes and the sets are incredibly detailed. Even the plates in the Lovings’ kitchen are relics of the 1960s. Although the design of the movie is strong, it doesn’t call attention to itself. It focuses on the little details, like the kitchen utensils or the television programs on TV. Like the rest of the movie, it has a quiet strength to it.

This attention to detail creates the sense of the rural calm in Virginia, but also feels the enormity of the Supreme Court case. The viewer is struck with a sense of uneasiness about the Lovings’ relationship. We root for them and their love, but we can never quite shake the feeling that something unorthodox is stuck in their marriage. We are placed in the shoes of their neighbors and their family, believing there is something unsettling about their interracial relationship.

Despite that, the movie does a great job of making Richard and Mildred’s love story honest. Richard shies away from any media attention and Mildred is often shown performing normal household activities.

One of the most compelling scenes in the movie is when a photographer from Life Magazine (Michael Shannon) spends a day with the Lovings. He photographs Mildred and Richard laughing together on their sofa, capturing a mundane moment filled with joy and love.

Throughout the movie, Nichols zooms in on little moments that show the deep connection between the Lovings. They laugh together. They sit in jail and cry together. Richard’s arm is almost always around Mildred, and she often sits on his lap and hugs him. They are almost always shown next to each other, and sometimes their bodies are so close that they seem to merge into one.

Edgerton has an especially standout performance. Richard is a bricklayer weighed down by the responsibility of causing his family’s troubles. Edgerton is constantly hunched over and his eyes squint with a guilty anxiety. As their Supreme Court case draws closer and attracts more and more attention to their humble lives, Edgerton shows Richard’s growing agitation and his distrust of everyone he meets.

Richard evolves from a lovestruck puppy dog to a defiant rebel to a depressed breadwinner until the case ends. The problem of being able to provide for his family, legally and financially, clearly weighs on him. Richard sees the racial problems that surround him but he has no way to deal with them and therefore feels responsible for his inaction. All of these emotions are never outrightly stated and are instead conveyed through Edgerton’s subtle acting.

Arguably the stronger character, however, is Mildred. She lives as a housewife and is clearly fed up with being racially oppressed. For a long time, however, she does nothing, feeling like she’s already stepped out of her place by marrying Richard. She is the more political of the two, and although she cares little about the racial issues outside of their household, she is the one who contacts the ACLU and arranges for their case to be heard.

Negga’s portrayal of Mildred is one of the most beautiful aspects of the movie. She says little but her big brown eyes convey profound emotion. Negga gives a real humanity to her character and shows her conflicted nature through small movements and telling expressions.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of the movie is how timeless it seems. Although the racial divisions seem distant from our daily lives, the love for another person and the desire to get married are overarching themes that impact all of us. This makes the Lovings’ love story immortal in its simplicity—it’s the story of two people who fall in love and face the roadblocks that try to prevent their future. It’s a classic love story, one with no borders, date, or race.

When their lawyer asked Richard if he had any messages to relay to the Supreme Court, he simply replies, “Tell them that I love my wife.”

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