loving-jeff-nichols-bucking-up-against-tradition-with-tradition
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving (2016)

On Bucking Up Against Tradition With Tradition

Loving is the amazing story of a time when two quiet people touched the future.

“You know better.”

This is what Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) often hears. He is a young white man who works as a laborer in 1958 Virginia, and his marriage to Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) is met with disapproval and scorn. They married in Washington, D.C., because interracial unions in their home state are illegal. Although the racially diverse members of Richard and Mildred’s community live harmoniously, most of their family and friends frown on the Loving marriage. Richard’s mother quietly disapproves, and his friends tease him about what they consider a foolish decision.

Cohabitation is acceptable. Marriage, however, could be dangerous. But Richard — a reserved, uneducated man who has spent his entire life relatively sheltered among a peaceful mix of black and white — doesn’t see why falling in love is a crime. He values his relationship with Mildred enough to take a risk. All he wants is tradition, respectability, and a valid union. But his bravery during a dark era has consequences: eventually, he and Mildred have no choice but to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law and accept banishment from the state for 25 years. They are exiled to Washington, D.C., where Mildred is eventually inspired to stand up for the freedom to love whomever she wants.

Loving is a heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting depiction of two people who bravely confronted racism, and their place along a continuum of harsh consequences for doing so. “We won’t bother anybody,” Richard says, quietly defending his and Mildred’s right to make their own choices, to live peacefully in their home, to work and pay their bills and raise their children. All this couple wanted was a normal life, and in fighting for themselves, they paved the way for others who merely want the same.

“You know better,” Richard is constantly told, and, in fact, he did. Joel Edgerton — a remarkably versatile actor — is unrecognizable in his role as the unwittingly progressive Richard, and he perfectly embodies the character’s low-key persona. Ruth Negga also delivers an outstanding performance as a soft-spoken young woman who finds her power and becomes the instigator of enduring social change.

Although the lead actors excel in their respective roles, however, the characterization of Richard and Mildred often feels muted. The real-life Lovings are described as having reticent personalities, but consistently portraying them in this manner on film dilutes the emotion of their passionate story. Many pivotal moments — for example, when Mildred is informed of the Supreme Court’s ruling on her case — that should evoke strong emotion actually lack intensity. Most of the supporting characters are not drawn well enough to provide additional insight into the main characters’ backgrounds and motivations.

Richard’s mother, a sober midwife, could have been a more valuable asset to the narrative if she had been fully developed. Like Richard, the portrayal of his mother is overly restrained, resulting in a missed opportunity for emotional resonance and a deeper story. Still, the subtlety of the script and the film’s direction often hits the mark, such as when Richard and Mildred move to Washington., D.C., and she stares at a tiny patch of withered grass surrounding a tree in their urban neighborhood. Her yearning for the lush landscape of Virginia and her suffering under a cruel system is seen vividly in her eyes.

The ordeal that Richard and Mildred Loving endured, and the triumph that they finally achieved, is an important story to be remembered. It occurred during an era that can seem long ago but amazingly, was not so long ago. It was a time when two quiet people touched the future.

The DVD contains several bonus features, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Loving; interviews with Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Jeff Nichols, and Colin Firth, who is a producer of the film; and in-depth information about the Loving v. Virginia case.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters