I must admit that as I watched Loving, the phrase “close to home” took on an alarming degree of literality, as the stunning recency of this historical moment became all to apparent me as a viewer: strange to think that within my parents’ lifetime, Richard and Mildred Loving’s marriage—though legal in our nation’s capital—was grounds for their imprisonment in my home state. Stranger still to find that the Lovings’ hometown, Central Point, is only a couple of hours away from where I grew up, in the swampy heat of coastal Virginia.
The Lovings’ story has been told before, but not nearly enough. Their court case Loving v. Virginia, which concluded in the Supreme Court in 1967, became the landmark civil rights case that effectively abolished anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Loving retells this history, but not so much from an angle that privileges the legislative politics of the time as the central preoccupation. Rather, the film’s politics focus more closely on the personal, recentering the Lovings themselves as the primary point of interest.
Jeff Nichols, to his credit, takes a more difficult route of storytelling for this particular historical touchstone: though the central conflicts of the film’s narrative lend themselves to heightened drama—visceral, gut-wrenching, Amistad-meets-12 Years a Slave drama—Loving is quiet by contrast, and, if not outright seething in its focused indignation, is something very close to it. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who play Richard and Mildred respectively, offer exquisitely skilled performances throughout the film, saying little in dialogue, but much in everything that is not said, everything which is too painful or impossible to articulate whether to themselves or to each other.
That’s not to discredit the narrative presentation of films such as the ones I named above, which often demand more unflinching portrayals of violence as a talisman against historical sugar-coating. But Loving’s style is of a different ilk: it’s not so much a film about a courtroom battle, which, with clumsy handling, could easily drift into melodrama suited for assuaging white guilt. Instead the court case hovers in the corner, like a specter that shows itself only when you begin to forget its presence. As the focus remains on Mildred and Richard themselves, on their partnership, on the intensity of their allegiance to each other, we see a portrait of a couple whose devotion is, well, natural—though laws at the time maintained that their union was anything but.
Loving continues to be well received in theaters, both by audiences and critics alike. Of course, there have been a few who have already described the film’s delivery as “polite,” the favorite term used, it seems, to describe “race films” that willfully refuse the quick payoff of certain triumph. In an age where the United States is being forced to reckon with its sustained history of overt racial injustice, one must wonder in what the penchant for rewarding portrayals of black (and in this case, interracial) suffering is ultimately rooted.
Perhaps it’s an understatement to reassert that Loving has arrived in theaters at a time when audiences need it the most. In a very real sense, it is close to home for any who have or have had ties to the U.S., not only those of us well acquainted with Virginia, or the South. As the country finds itself suspended in a period of profound political uncertainty, faced with the question of whether or not all may reasonably expect to retain even basic freedoms we’re accustomed to exercising, however limited—Loving has appeared as an unexpected, but necessary offering, a reminder that history is not behind us, but rather that we are living it, and living in it.