At 37, Jeff Nichols already has established himself as one of our most accomplished and original filmmakers, with a body of work that includes “Take Shelter,” “Mud” and “Midnight Special.”
The Arkansas native hasn’t invented a new genre or discovered a magical forest teeming with heretofore untold myths and fairy tales. His pictures cover familiar territory. Yet Nichols is blessed with a talent for telling stories from fresh, surprising perspectives.
That’s especially true of his latest picture, “Loving,” a resplendent and remarkably subtle yet deeply affecting drama about the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) and Ruth Negga (“Preacher”) star as Richard and Mildred Loving, the now-celebrated couple — he was white, she African-American — who were arrested in 1958 at their home in rural Virginia shortly after they drove up to Washington to get married. (The District of Columbia did not prohibit interracial marriage.)
The story opens a few weeks before the couple’s wedding and ends nearly a decade later with the court’s ruling.
Yet Nichols’ lyrical film, which is a deeply felt paean to true love as much as it is a social history, is unlike any movie about civil rights you’re likely to see.
While it’s structured around a series of court cases, “Loving” is decidedly not a legal drama. It spends barely a minute inside a country courtroom near the top of the film. The most we see of the Supreme Court is its marble steps.
Nor is “Loving” a chronicle of the civil rights movement, many of whose leaders were heavily invested in the case. We are not privy to the strategy meetings held by the ACLU leadership or the two lawyers the organization assigned to the Lovings’ case. We never get to see Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) argue their case in court. We see them only during several brief meetings they had with the Lovings over a nine-year period.
“Loving” also has little time to devote to the intense media coverage around the case. Mildred is shown talking to reporters a few times. And there is one lovely scene featuring Michael Shannon as Life magazine photographer Grey Villet, who visited the Lovings at home for a photo shoot.
Nor, finally, is “Loving” one of those searing action pictures about injustice that feature cross burnings and gunfights. Nichols shows the Lovings’ ignoble mistreatment by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), who arrested them, and Judge Bazile (David Jensen), who convicted them. But the movie paints a more complex, paradoxical picture of race relations. Despite the prejudice and racial hatred that suffuse the movie’s rural Virginia, whites and African-Americans there live lives that are inextricably intertwined and interdependent.
So if not these, then what is Nichols’ approach? What’s the film about?
For the most part, the story is confined to the Lovings, their three children and their extended families. Despite its global impact, the Lovings’ is a domestic story.
“Loving” is a love story. Edgerton and Negga burn intensely on screen as two people who are totally, thoroughly and irrevocably connected to each other as two parts of a larger whole. But Nichols doesn’t give us a poet’s fanciful notion of love. It’s mundane, messy. Their love is not an idea, but a concrete, living, breathing reality.
And it’s almost entirely nonverbal. Richard, for one, is portrayed as a man of deep feeling but few words — Edgerton has no more than 20 lines in the whole film. He and Negga convey the connection that sustains Richard and Mildred through facial expressions and gestures, visual cues, subtle physical contact. (The film has no nudity or overt sexuality.)
It’s clear from Nichols’ film that the Lovings weren’t social crusaders, but ordinary people caught up in a larger drama written and controlled by lawyers, politicians and journalists.
Yet almost miraculously, Nichols also shows that the everyday love shared by this ordinary couple is as meaningful and worthy of attention as the grandest social movement we can imagine.