History is full of accidental heroes who stood at a time and place where something profound happened around them. This theme shines in Loving (2016), a film about a couple whose marriage was challenged in the USA Supreme Court in 1967. In one of the exquisite ironies of history, the couple’s surname was Loving and it was only love that kept them together while a slavery-era law tried to pull them apart.
In 1958, white construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his black girlfriend Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) drove from Virginia to Washington so they could legally marry beyond the reach of their own State’s anti-mixed marriage laws. On return they were arrested like common criminals and given the option of a year in prison or 25 years of exile from Virginia. That was no choice for a couple expecting their first child. While in exile, Mildred is inspired by the black rights marches and writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who asks the American Civil Liberties Union to take up their case. Eleven years later, it reached the Supreme Court and history was made.
What makes this film outstanding is the way it blends a history lesson with the dramatization of the human effects of racist legislation. Neither the history nor the drama overwhelms the film. The period styling exudes authenticity and the acting performances are finely calibrated portraits of two humble people who became caught up in an era of profound social upheaval. While Richard is over-awed by the growing national attention to their case, Mildred understands her role in history and what she can do for all black people. Joel Edgerton is brilliant in playing surly mistrust of the legal system and is a steadfast protector of his wife. The beating heart of the film, however, is Ruth Negga’s performance. She consummately portrays the emotional highs and the lows, from the hope-filled blushing bride to the shattered prisoner of moral injustice, with an acting repertoire carried entirely by her huge expressive eyes.
This is a powerful film. It is not about heroes or villains, but ordinary people who played a small part in shaping a major turning point in history. To call it entertaining is not the right word. Rather it is an engaging, enlightening and worthwhile story about how a Loving couple changed history.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga