‘Loving’
Director:
Jeff Nichols
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

What if you’re interested in social issues but hate the sledgehammer wielded by movies about them? Let’s say you care about what happens in the world and know that films can subtly change the culture, but you also get hives during big speeches, bald exposition and “artistic liberties” that murder complexity. Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” then, was made to order. Instead of pummeling us, it’s as gentle as its heroes, Richard and Mildred Loving, two shy Virginians who fell in love and got married, despite their state, in 1958, barring the union of two like them, namely one white, one black.

The Lovings changed history. “Loving vs. Virginia” went to the Supreme Court in 1967 and the ruling helped mow down the nation’s anti-miscegenation laws. It was later cited in the case that brought all 50 states marriage equality. But the couple, represented by ACLU lawyers, never attended the trial. They hated the spotlight, and they suffered the grind of a decade-long battle that, while short on physical abuse, was long on the emotional kind. A stirring rabble-rouser wouldn’t do them right; when “Loving”’s token post-script text states that Mildred said she didn’t want to be thought of as a hero, it’s like Nichols putting the finishing touches on a difficult equation he just solved.

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In “Loving,” Richard and Mildred are just regular people — just a boy (Joel Edgerton) and a girl (Ruth Negga) who grew up in the same remote bubble of Virginia. They never think to see themselves as a problem beyond the legal kind, and they don’t even make a fuss when they realize they have to sneak up to D.C. to get hitched. When police raid their home before dawn, ejecting the couple from bed and into separate jail cells, it’s the beginning of a long, hard battle — but not the kind that makes for your standard simplistic history lesson. Our heroes are largely passive, hiding in the background of their own fight. It takes years for Mildred to realize she should do something, anything, and even then all she does is write a letter to RFK and later prove genuinely surprised when she gets a call from the ACLU.

But Nichols sticks by their side the entire time, doing little but observing. In films like “Take Shelter,” “Mud” and “Midnight Special,” he tried to find a balance between loosening up familiar genres or subjects while still keeping precise control. Each scene in “Loving” feels like Nichols took the outline of a traditional docudrama scene and smudged the edges till it felt natural. You learn a lot, but most of the history fodder is buried in tossed-off dialogue or delivered by lawyers (including one by semi-comic relief Nick Kroll) in a stentorian manner that’s supposed to be boring. What you get more of, though, are feelings of being there. You get the sense of what it must be like to emerge into the sunlight after a night in jail. You hear the crickets as Richard and Mildred hesitantly and mousily proclaim their love while sitting on a stoop. You sense the taciturn Richard’s unease at having to say anything that isn’t a short, indecipherable burst of mouth noise.

The key scene in “Loving” has nothing to do with racist sheriffs or fiery lawyers or even civil rights. As their case has grown in notoriety, the Lovings are visited by a photographer from Life magazine. He’s played by Nichols regular Michael Shannon, in what is his usual vibe for Nichols: quiet and quietly thoughtful. Shannon’s photographer needs some killer snapshots, but he’s in no rush to get them. He knows to spend time with them, tell them stories over dinner, sit in the corner until they forget about his presence. At that point he can quietly take out his camera and take a picture, one that can galvanize the public while still being true to two of them. He might as well be the director’s stand-in. Nichols has created the movie equivalent of that photographer’s Life spread. His film doesn't thwack you over the head with a message, and doesn't try too hard to connect this story to present day injustices. It presents its heroes as people. It stays true to them.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge