I’m fortunate enough that my marriage has never had to go through the scrutiny of others…which is to say, it hasn’t been outlawed. While I understand the historical importance of the love story at the center of Jeff Nichols’s beautiful film, and find it an important reminder that, despite the long odds at times, love always wins in the end, I found myself thinking of my own marriage through much of the film. That makes the Loving’s story universal, and Nichols’s movie one that can be applicable to anyone. After being letdown hearing someone discuss it, my expectations were lowered, but that only made it exceeding them all the more impressive.
I’ve only been married for one year, but I found myself identifying deeply with Richard Loving, the Virginia white man played by Joel Edgarton in a performance that is understated but tremendously powerful. In 1958, Richard fell in love with a black woman named Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga). He was friends with her family through drag racing. They got pregnant, at which point, he proposed to her and they went to D.C. to get married. They had to go to D.C. because at the time, it was illegal for two people of different races to cohabitate, let alone marry. They were soon arrested and put in jail. Rather than go to prison long-term, or get a divorce, Richard and Mildred take a plea deal, pleading guilty on the condition that they permanently move to D.C. and never return together to Virginia. To do so would result in 25 years in prison. Reluctantly, they agree, but the pull to go home when their family starts to grow becomes tempting. By that point, however, the ACLU has taken on their case and it then becomes a legally important flashpoint in defining marriage, any marriage, as a Constitutional right.
The obvious modern comparison to the legal battle at the heart of “Loving” is the fight for marriage equality the LGBTQ community has fought, and won in the Supreme Court in the summer of 2015. But what really resonated with me about Nichols’s film was the emotional toll the Loving’s case took on Richard. He is a man of few words, and doesn’t see the larger scope of their fight. He just wanted to marry the woman he loved. And he takes chances to give her what she wants, even if it means risking jail. As he tells their lawyer before he goes to argue their case before the Supreme Court, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” It’s as simple as that, and he has a deep anxiety about whether he can provide for her like she deserves. This anxiety is only mentioned once, and it’s a quietly devastating moment played perfectly by the actors, who deliver sterling performances. I get that anxiety, though for very different reasons than Richard has in this powerful look at love changing the tide of Civil Rights in this case. Love will always win in the end, and that’s a message we need more than ever right now.