If 2016’s “Loving” weren’t made to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple integral in reversing the illegality of interracial marriage in Virginia and other states, it would still nonetheless work as a moving, poignant love story.
Whereas so many films similar in stature (like “The Butler”  and “Hidden Figures” ) sometimes verge on the preachy when dissecting the wrongs of the racial prejudices of a half-century ago, “Loving” puts its frustrations on the back burner. What writer/director Jeff Nichols is interested in, and what he’s most attentive to, is giving cinematic weight to the accidentally cinematic romance which sat between its title couple.
The film concerns their relationship from 1958, the year in which they married, to 1967, the year which saw the Supreme Court lift the ban on interracial marriage thanks to their unwillingness to let racist interference stand in the way of their love for one another.
With the couple played by Joel Edgerton and newcomer Ruth Negga, actors who effortlessly bring stirring vulnerability to their portrayals, we see historical drama in a way rarely afforded in mainstream cinema. We’re so caught up in their marriage, in the goings-on in their heads, that it isn’t uncommon to sometimes forget that we aren’t simply watching a sleepy, naturalistic Southern romance in full bloom.
And such is why “Loving” is among 2016’s premier features. It subverts the expectations of the biopic and finds the humanistic center often missing from the genre. “[The Lovings] weren’t part of a particular movement,” Nichols told Matt Fagerholm in a 2016 interview. “Their act of being married wasn’t one of defiance. It was one of love. And I think because of that, you are able to take these polarized points of view and points of discussion and bring them down to a very simple humanistic level.”
This statement holds steady even when the courtroom trappings do eventually become imminent – not a moment of “Loving” feels false, and not a moment resembles a conventional biopic. It’s about as contemplative as a feature of its kind can get, and Nichols’ ability to stray far from the obvious is extraordinary. There isn’t a monologue, a slice of overheated theatricality, to be found.
But Edgerton and Negga are the facets which make “Loving” so mesmerizing. Edgerton, among the more underrated actors working today, represents the sort of average Joe bountiful in the broadened spectrum of our society: stoically masculine, soft-spoken, straightforward, hard-working. Nothing changes about him throughout the nine years during which we get to know him: he’s satisfied laying bricks day after day, taking in the comforts of living a predictable, placid life. Edgerton is so compelling because we empathize with Richard so deeply. Here is a perfectly ordinary man whose life has been made octaves more complicated solely because he fell in love with the “wrong” woman.
“Loving’s” utmost revelation, though, is Negga, the 35-year-old, Ethiopian born (and Ireland based) actress who’s been active since 2004 and yet has never been able to amplify her talents to their full extent. In “Loving,” she is exquisite, vivid. We see her mature from a teenage bride to a wizened mother and wife, and the metamorphosis is so nonchalant we hardly notice Negga’s brilliance until we really think about how difficult the role is. As Mildred, Negga has to be sweet but headstrong, motherly but hardened. She is woman perpetually susceptible to the dangers of being a black woman married to a white man in the segregated South, and Negga has to portray these psychological contradictions without ever losing sight of realistic three-dimensionality. What we’re given is one of the decade’s great, and most revealing, performances.
With its disposition so muted and thoughtful, “Loving” might feel underwhelming to viewers accustomed to the melodramatic highs of most biopics. But look closely and you’ll see that the film perhaps doesn’t even belong to the genre in which it is a part: this is a biographical romance so unhurried, so pensive, and so timely, it almost feels uncategorizable.