Review: "Loving," the case that changed interracial marriage


Loving is the true story of Richard Perry Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving, who were arrested because they got married even though there was a notable difference between his skin color and her skin color. They were charged with violating Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act of 1924."

Here's what Bill Nye told a group of students about racial integrity in 2015: "The color of our ancestors' skin and ultimately my skin and your skin is a consequence of ultraviolet light, of latitude and climate. Despite our recent sad conflicts here in the U.S., there really is no such thing as race. We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different."

The Lovings were convicted of violating the Racial Integrity Act on January 6, 1959. On June 12, 1967 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the Lovings. No longer could consenting adults be barred from marrying because of the color of their skin. The number of interracial marriages in the U.S. increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 2.0% in 1980 to 12% in 2013.

When the Supreme Court made their ruling, there were still 16 states where interracial marriage remained illegal. The last state to repeal their law was Alabama, and they didn't repeal it until the year 2000 — 33 years after the Supreme Court ruling.

In a 2013 Gallup poll, 11% of Americans indicated they were opposed to marriages between people with notable differences in the color of their skin.

Three movies have been made about the Lovings and their quest to get the government to stop messing with them. The first was 1996's Mr. and Mrs. Loving, about which Mildred Loving told a writer, "Not much of it was very true. The only part of it right was that I had three children." The second was the 2012 Peabody Award-winning documentary The Loving Story.

For Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special) keeps it real and remarkably low-key. You know the big, stirring speeches that usually come with stories like this? The closest you get is a paragraph or two from a lawyer. There are no long, tense courtroom scenes, either. Nichols opts to focus on the couple and their relationship with each other and the communities in which they live.

Joel Edgerton plays Richard, who works with his hands and isn't a big talker. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, who is more expressive than Richard, but only a little. They don't make grand statements or argue politics, they just live their lives in their rural Virginia community.

Richard and Mildred are devoted to each other. When she informs him that she's pregnant, the delighted man proposes to her. Since they can't get married in Virginia, they travel to Washington D.C. and get hitched without any fuss.

Back at home, all appears to be well, until the night the sheriff shows up to haul them to jail. "But we're married," Mildred exclaims while pointing to their framed marriage certificate on the wall. "Not here, you're not," says the sheriff.

Their lawyer cuts a deal with the judge, who is a friend of his. They will each receive one-year jail sentences. Those sentences will be suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return as a couple for the next 25 years. They can visit alone, but not together.

They move in with Mildred's relatives in D.C., but neither of them are happy with life in a big city. Inevitably, they end up sneaking back home, only to get arrested again. The lawyer pulls in his last favor to get them out, but warns them that he will be unable to rescue them again.

Eventually, the Lovings get connected with two ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) that believe they can take the case to the Supreme Court. Thank God! After all the stoicism, I was ready to hear stirring arguments before the highest court in the land. But Nichols maintains his focus on the Lovings, including only a couple brief excerpts from the trial.

While Loving gets a blue ribbon for integrity, the portrait of its lead characters is too muted to be emotionally satisfying. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are exceptional as Richard and Mildred but their 10-year story boils down to this: They wanted to be left alone. Eventually, they get to be left alone. Oh, and some lawyers use their case to strike a major blow for equality in America, but we don't get to watch that part. Jeff Nichols has made a fine, honest portrait of one couple's unwavering love, but he fails to present that portrait in a sufficiently rousing context. Shucks.


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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