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Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in ‘Loving’

Through its ruling on Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state of Virginia’s prohibition of interracial marriages by deeming it a violation of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection. The case, which occurred toward the end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, occupies a unique place in history. It was not as momentous as the landmark legislation that defines the era — the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act — nor was it as much of a rallying point as the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the March on Washington. 

But this court case brought civil rights directly and intimately into American homes. We tend to hold to the belief that you can’t legislate love, but this case defied that claim. It set the standard by upholding the right to love, at least across racial lines. What is “free love” without this first revolutionary shot across the bow? 

Rather than serving up a documentary-like recreation of the life and times of Richard and Mildred Loving, placing them within the context of the sweeping social and cultural changes occurring in the 1960s, writer-director Jeff Nichols zeros in on the humanity of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), the two people at the center of it all. 

Imagine a feature film examining the Montgomery Bus Boycott from the perspective of Rosa Parks, detailing her everyday experiences leading up to her refusal to give up her seat on the segregated bus. What was her life like? What were the routines of work and churchgoing in a world where she, and so many others, were largely invisible?

Loving allows the larger world to recede somewhat into the background, providing space to see a white man in love with a black (mixed-race) woman, and a woman who, when push comes to shove, seizes the opportunity to make their more perfect union matter. These individuals are not protesters or would-be martyrs for some righteous cause. They are not members of the progressive elite. They are not angry. They are in love. They are . . . loving.

But once they embark on this journey, they realize that this moment, this decision, has the potential to eclipse them and the simple life they sought to share with one another. Watching the narrative unfold requires a shift in thinking, back to the days when the disenfranchised weren’t as bold as we are today. People bowed their heads and averted their eyes in the face of authority; without the comfort of the solidarity of numbers, people of color kept their voices lowered in the presence of white folks. 

This is the world Nichols lays bare on the screen, showing us how Richard surrenders his privilege — not that anyone would have called it privilege back then — to be with Mildred, but he doesn’t see that he’s giving anything up. In fact, thanks to Nichols, we understand that he would have lost something even more precious if he couldn’t have been with Mildred. But we also can’t help but see how easy it would have been for him to walk away from the larger fight. Even though she was pregnant with his child, Richard could have divorced Mildred and they could have gone back to living together in the shadows, avoiding the legal battle. 

The case and the fight it engenders matter in Loving, but not in the ways we might expect. Despite the fact that Mildred, in her plainspoken way, does supply rootsy common-sense statements of fact, she and Richard are not eloquent spokespersons for the cause. That is why the legal skirmishes take place, for the most part, offscreen. As the legal team stands before the Supreme Court, we see the Lovings setting the table and settling down for an evening meal. This is the quintessential American family experience. Forget apple pies and baseball games — gathering the family around the table; nothing else feels as American as that.

Battles continue to rage over the definition and composition of that family dynamic. A man and a woman. A man and a woman of different races, religions. Same-sex couples. Nichols, in Loving, illustrates how family starts with a choice that’s rooted in love — and we can’t legislate love. But we must defend the right to love in the first place. (Opens Wednesday in area theaters) (PG-13) Grade: A