Movie review: Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols

“On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pled guilty to ‘cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.'”

Part of the general complaints from the 11% of the critics who did not like the new movie Loving was that it wasn’t exciting enough. The Wife and I saw it at the Spectrum in Albany, and we thought it was wonderfully understated.

This is based on a true story of a couple, a white man named Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and a black woman named Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) who had the audacity to fall in love in late 1950s Virginia. Mildred gets pregnant, so Richard does the honorable thing and proposes marriage.

But that wasn’t an option in the Dominion State in 1958, which had passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, making marriage between whites and non-whites a crime, so they go to Washington, DC to get hitched. They settle back in the small town of Central Point, VA. Based on an anonymous tip, the local police break into their domicile – a terrifying moment in the film – and find the Lovings sleeping in their bed. Mildred pointed out the framed marriage certificate on the bedroom wall, but they were told the certificate was not valid in the Commonwealth.

“On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pled guilty to ‘cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.’ They were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on condition that the couple leaves Virginia and not return together for at least 25 years,” an apparently generous offer worked out by a local attorney. “After their conviction, the couple moved to the District of Columbia.”

Frustrated by being away from their extended families, and not happy with urban life, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. RFK referred her letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and young, inexperienced attorney Bernard S. Cohen, who, eventually, with fellow lawyer Philip J. Hirschkop, filed a motion on behalf of the Lovings in the Virginia trial court to “vacate the criminal judgments and set aside the Lovings’ sentences on the grounds that the Virginia miscegenation statutes ran counter to the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.”

This is a slow legal process, and the taciturn Richard is uncomfortable with the need to get publicity for the case, while Mildred appreciated its strategic importance. The tension might have split up a lesser couple. When the case was to be argued before the Supreme Court, the lawyers asked Richard what he’d want to say to the justices. Richard: “Tell them I love my wife.”

I had written about this case here, specifically Loving Day, on June 12, 1967, the date Loving v. Virginia overturned the laws not only in their case but in 14 other states.

Unfortunately, “Richard Loving died aged 41 in 1975 when a drunk driver struck his car in Caroline County, Virginia. Mildred Loving lost her right eye in the same accident. She died of pneumonia on May 2, 2008, in Milford, Virginia, aged 68. The couple had three children: Donald, Peggy, and Sidney.” Peggy was involved in the making of the movie.

As I suggested, there is tension in this film, but it’s subtle, such a brick around the LIFE magazine article they appear in. This was a mostly quiet, but extremely effective film for which Edgerton and Negga rightly received Golden Globe nominations.