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Loving: The Quiet Heroes Who Legalized Interracial Marriage

Breakout star Ruth Negga gives an Oscar-worthy performance in an otherwise too-reserved film

Richard and Mildred Loving, the husband and wife who helped legalize interracial marriage in 1967, weren't civil rights activists. Call them civil rights passivists: two apolitical homebodies who rarely left the hour-and-a-half radius of the rural Virginia county where they fell in love when he was 18 and she was 11. They weren't there when Loving v. Virginia inspired the Supreme Court to unanimously overturn anti-miscegenation laws. They never read the High Court's decision, in which Justice Earl Warren thundered, "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival." Their lawyers claimed to have never met the Lovings' three children. Only after it was all over, and the Lovings could carry on their quiet lives without fearing prison, did Mildred even give their legal team a hug.

They were a stoic couple, so it's fitting that Jeff Nichols's Loving is an unusually stoic film. It shrugs when most rage-against-the-machine biopics scream. If Sally Field's Norma Rae or Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof or Julia Roberts's Erin Brockovich or Sean Penn's Harvey Milk barged into the frame, the Lovings (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) would back away like these rabble-rousers were waving a hot skillet at them. Though their illegal wedding upended America, the irony is that it's a fundamentally old-school marriage: He works; she watches the kids. He's the protector; she pretends he's in charge. He picks a plot of land for their home without asking, and, in real life, didn't even tell his 18-year-old bride that their out-of-state union was a felony. And when they're thrown in jail and their eight-year ordeal begins, he's the one responsible for fixing it — until she silently realizes that their future rests on her.

The first time I saw Loving, at Cannes, I was thrown off by its reserve. Nichols has made a romance without passion — the Lovings keep their feelings so private, we're barely allowed to observe. They don't talk much and barely kiss. We have no idea what draws them together except that they've committed to setting up house, and ain't no one going to tell them different. (It seems laughable that the three cops who burst into their home at 2 a.m. hoped to tack on a second crime by finding them mid-coitus — their children magically multiply in a chaste montage.) At their most intimate, Richard, a bricklayer, rests his forehead on his tiny wife, his heavy arm encircling her body like a python, to prove what the film slowly reveals: that this fragile-looking woman, whose childhood nickname was Stringbean, is in fact made of steel.

Nichols is so genteel, it feels like he's uncomfortable making a movie about real people, who, like everyone, must have bickered and burped and said the wrong thing sometimes. In part, that's because the Lovings avoided interviews; the most that people knew about them was a photo spread in Life magazine that made a point of proving that they were as ordinary as everyone else: They did dishes, watched TV, hugged their children. Nichols, too, says only what audiences want to hear. Even though public opinion has supported interracial marriage for two generations, the movie seems petrified of making enemies, even more than the Lovings themselves, who, even after the court's decision, woke up to burning crosses on their lawn — twice.

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From this distance, they pass for saints, or, rather, the kind of unblemished good-folks-in-peril who, with good cinematography and a Very Special Message, score Best Picture nominations. Nichols, a filmmaker known for his solemn B-pictures like Midnight Special, Take Shelter, and Shotgun Stories, seems to crave that validation, and perhaps he seized upon this story because the rural setting gives him an excuse for his favorite image: a man staring across a field wondering what trouble's coming next.

Like the actual Richard Loving, Edgerton is whiter than white. Hs platinum hair and invisible eyebrows glow like the moon; the darkest thing on his face is the shadow next to his nose. He's so pale he's translucent, but his character is opaque. It's hard to tell if he's shy or simple, or if Edgerton, an Australian, can't get below the surface of this classic American redneck. Still, the one thing we know for certain is that he feels the responsibilities of midcentury manhood, even if Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) talks to him like a child. "You know better," Brooks scolds, calling this grown man "Boy." We know what that means in the South, even if Richard is slower to catch on to it than his black friends, who already know the law works against them. "You black now, ain'tcha!" one cackles. "You a damned fool!" While Loving only glances past class conflict, history's already proven that the courts aren't fair. Wealthy Virginia plantation owners and former presidents like Thomas Jefferson impregnated black women for centuries. Richard's crime is that he's poor — and married to her.

But the actor to watch is Ruth Negga as Mildred. Negga speaks with her eyes — since she barely talks, we're forced to follow her gaze, the way she looks at her husband for reassurance in front of their inexperienced ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll) or sizes up a scrawny city tree when the couple is forced into exile in Washington D.C. She has the look of a woman who has a lot of things she'd say if she lived in a time when she could say them. When the police come to arrest her at her mother's home days after delivering her first child, Mildred silently kisses the baby, gets her coat, and walks to the cop car without a goodbye. She has too much dignity to cry. When she does speak, Richard obeys her words like gospel. Negga, an Ethiopian-born, Irish-raised Hollywood newcomer, gives an Oscar-worthy performance. She's so still and powerful, she gives the film a depth the script doesn't earn. I can't think of the film without thinking of her gaze, and I can't think of that gaze without admiring the film more than it deserves.

Loving doesn't mention race for a good chunk of its running time — we spot judgmental glances from the white drivers Richard beats in a car race, the black neighbors looking suspiciously at the couple's dumb nerve — but the issue doesn't even seem to occur to the pair until the police break into their home in a tense sequence that plays like a slasher flick. Once the Supreme Court allowed them to stay put, they did. So did Sheriff Brooks. In 1992, Mildred told the New York Times that she and Brooks had never spoken another word to each other, though just the week before she'd spotted him mowing his lawn. Brooks, however, was happy to talk to the press. "I still think it should be on the books," he said of the law, 25 years after America decided it was wrong. "The Lord made sparrows and robins, not to mix with one another." As we've seen in this country since Obama took office, bigotry endures. A law can change in a day, but people are much slower.