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In the years since Barack Obama was elected, Hollywood has produced an abundance of powerful films about civil rights—12 Years a Slave and Selma are the best—but Jeff Nichols’ Loving may be the movie that most accurately and carefully reflects our racially fractured nation. Sometimes, the film is too quiet and calm for its own good. The performances are intentionally subtle, the direction minimalist, and the script stubbornly refuses to provide scope or context. But this simplicity has a purpose: these characters have no ambitions to make history, only to live freely, and the film stylistically matches their wishes.
Loving opens in a corner of post-racial bliss. Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) are a white man and a black woman deeply in love. In their rural Virginia town, Richard is an accepted member of Mildred’s mostly black community. There, men and women of both races work side by side in the field. On the weekends, they drag race for fun and money. Using Richard and Mildred as a microcosm, Jeff Nichols’s compassionate film depicts a dream of a post-racial society deferred, and the hope for renewal.
That bliss is shattered when Mildred gets pregnant, and Richard drives her to D.C. to get married. When they return to Virginia, they are promptly arrested for miscegenation. Desperate to avoid jail time, they accept a plea deal and agree to leave the state. For a few years they build a happy life in the District. Richard works, and Mildred pops out a few kids. But the injustice still stings, and after the ACLU receives Mildred’s letter about their predicament, a pair of constitutional lawyers (Jon Bass and an in-over-his-head Nick Kroll) hatch a risky plan—they must move back to Virginia and get arrested again—that could clear them and other couples like them for good.
If the Loving couple feel the burden of progress on their backs, they never crack from the pressure. Edgerton and Negga each give pleasingly subtle performances that are also gender-specific. As Richard, Edgerton is perpetually still. You can feel his strength and power lurking beneath the surface, but, as their case becomes national news, he withers under the public’s intrusive stare. He wears a perpetual grimace of pain on his chiseled face, as if steeling himself against an omnipresent aggressor. Negga is similarly reserved, but currents of passion are visible below the surface. She’s the stronger one in the relationship, and Richard knows it. When decisions need to be made, he defers to her.
The reservedness the Lovings exhibit is matched by the reservedness of Nichols’ approach. At times, it’s a hindrance. There are no fireworks here: We never get the catharsis of seeing justice served and love preserved. We aren’t treated to the soaring rhetoric of their lawyer’s statement in front of the Supreme Court, and when Mildred receives the news that their case was successful, her response is so muted it’s almost inaudible.
But Nichols knows what he’s doing and, just in those moments when the narrative might be losing steam, he summons heart-stopping, indelible moments. Cross-cutting between two potentially-fatal accidents will wake up drifting audience members, and another bit of misdirection involving a rope hanging from a tree shows that Nichols is in full command of all his tools.
Loving makes you feel like you’re in the hands of a confident director who isn’t afraid to let the audience find their way into a story. His style prevents the film from being a crowd-pleaser, but it’s the right approach for the story.
Loving opens Friday at E Street and Bethesda Row.