'Loving' is the movie we need now
© Focus Features/Screenshot

The film "Loving," to be released in theaters on Nov. 4, is a breath of fresh air for our national conversation about race and difference, arriving just when it is needed most.

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An extraordinary piece of cinema written and directed by American filmmaker Jeff Nichols, "Loving" is aptly named, as the film is first and foremost the story of Richard Perry Loving, a white Virginian, and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving, a woman of mixed African American and Native American heritage.

The historical Mildred and Richard were ordinary people who sought to live an ordinary life, yet they braved notoriety and contempt to challenge the commonwealth of Virginia's ban on interracial marriage with Loving v. Virginia, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court to overturn that ban in Virginia and at least 15 other states when the court ruled in their favor in 1967.

The film celebrates their love and their heroic fight to live as husband and wife at a time when marriage between the races in Virginia was a criminal offense punishable by time in the state penitentiary.

"They weren't martyrs, and they didn't want to be," says director Jeff Nichols. "They weren't symbols and they didn't want to be. They were two people in love who wanted to be with each other and their family."

"Loving," the film, is very much an international affair. Richard and Mildred are played by Australian Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga. The team of producers includes Ged Doherty and Colin Firth of Britain and American Nancy Buirski, who made the 2011 documentary, "The Loving Story," on which the feature film is largely based.

This particular genealogy is significant because the lyric realism of the feature is infused with images from the documentary, which featured the actual Mildred and Richard Loving when they were still alive. The cinematic relationship with "The Loving Story" lends a heartbreaking authenticity to every intimate or fearful glance in "Loving."

Negga's every movement, gesture and inflection of speech in "Loving" reveals the care with which she studied the Buirski documentary. Edgerton is passionately powerful, if somewhat more restrained, as Richard Loving, as befitting the reluctance of the historical Richard to take a place in the public view.

The two stars appear in balanced light — each gives a stellar performance without overshadowing the other. This aesthetic effect is also a testament to the director's craft.

In "Loving," Nichols, known for his work in "Mud" and "Midnight Special," creates a world. Loving was shot in and around Richmond, Virginia and in the countryside of nearby Ashland. Passing towns with names like Central Point and Frog Level, one follows the old Pamunkey trail or the Mattaponi trail to spaces where blacks, whites and Native American Virginians conjugate rich and sometimes perplexing bloodlines where the markers between the races are often less than clear.

So infused is the cinematographic landscape of the film with the physical landscape of the Virginia countryside that it drips with a lyric sensibility — and it is a smart film, anything but sentimental.

Part of the authenticity of "Loving" also comes from the actors' attentive reverence for the story and their visits to related sites of memory like the graves of Mildred and Richard Loving and the Caroline County jail in Bowling Green, Virginia.

The viewer is drawn in by the opening scenes populated by rolling dirt roads and songbirds and disarmed by the Edenic quality of the encounter between one man and one woman standing in a clearing in a green cornfield as she looks at him in wonder and momentary disbelief when he says. "I'm going to build you a house. Our house."

Despite Virginia's often shameful racial history, in 1958, Central Point, in Caroline County, was an oasis of relatively peaceful interactions between the races. Brown v. the Board of Education had passed, striking down segregation in the public schools. Several Virginia counties resisted, notably Prince Edward County, which in 1959 would close its entire school system rather than integrate, but change was in the air.

Mildred and Richard had been dating for about two years and she became pregnant with his child. Knowing that they could not marry in Virginia, the couple drove to Washington, D.C. where they tied the knot before returning to family and friends in Central Point. Hopeful that they would simply be able to live in peace against the backdrop of these changing times, the Loving couple could hardly have anticipated what happened next.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film depicts the invasion of their home by the county sheriff, who kicks in their door in the middle of the night a little over a month later. The sheriff has come to separate Mildred and Richard from each other and to throw them into the county jail in for the crime of being married.

"I'm his wife," Mildred says as she points to the marriage license hanging on the wall above their bed, to which the racist sheriff answers, "That's no good here."

Edgerton's performance is sterling throughout, but he is perhaps at his best in this scene. You can almost taste the fear in Richard's mouth as the couple’s bed is surrounded by angry men who called themselves white.

Why was the sheriff so intent on destroying Mildred and Richard's marriage?

What questions did their marriage raise for him?

The topic of racially mixed marriage remains a controversial one for many, as does the topic of interfaith marriage and marriage equality. That is what the story of Mildred and Richard Loving brings to the fore; the right to marry equally and to have equal protection under the law.

First and foremost, the film is about love, but it is also a film about difference, and about what is silenced and what is spoken.

The effects of the 1967 Loving decision were far-reaching.

Loving v. Virginia was cited as a precedent in the 2015 Oberfells v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality between persons of the same gender legal.

But well before that, Mildred Loving saw the connection and gave her testimony to add to the growing momentum for marriage equality. Richard was killed by a drunk driver as he and Mildred drove home together on a Saturday night in 1975, but Mildred lived to endorse marriage equality for couples of the same gender in 2007 before her death the following year.

One emerges from the darkness of the theater feeling as if she or he has just spent an evening with Mildred and Richard Loving. Today, the release of "Loving" is, as much as anything, a cultural event — a national cultural event.

Following its success at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, "Loving" has received acclaim at screenings that have included such prominent venues as the Smithsonian's new National Museum for African American History and Culture. Edgerton and Negga appear in a spicy fashion shoot in November's issue of Vogue under the title "The Interracial Romance That Changed America." Visitors to the official "Loving" website are encouraged to "tweet your stories of Love and help change the national conversation."

Film and photo supply the illusion that Mildred and Richard Loving are once again among us.

It is auspicious that "Loving" is released in a season of the year when, by mystical and religious tradition, the veil between the living and the dead is thin. And although the makers of the film may not have had this temporal frame in mind, the lyrically visual aesthetic qualities of "Loving" serve as a fitting memorial to Mildred and Richard and invite some of the reflection that we as a nation need right now.

Braxton is David M. Larson Fellow in Spirituality and Health at the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center and professor of Africana Studies at the College of William and Mary.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.