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'Loving' Review: Historical Drama on Interracial Marriage Is Oscarworthy

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as mixed-race couple who's legal case became a civil-rights landmark

'Loving' revisits a legal case on interracial marriage that became a civil-right landmark. Peter Travers weighs in on why it's one of the year's best.
'Loving' Review: Historical Drama on Interracial Marriage Is Oscarworthy

Construction worker and mechanic Richard Loving marries his pregnant girlfriend, Mildred. But instead of happily ever after, the couple are arrested in their bedroom; they're told to get out of state pronto or face jail time. See, he's white and she's black. This is the state of Virginia in 1958 and interracial marriage isn't just frowned on. It's a crime.

So begins Loving, in which Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred give performances that will be talked about for years. It's the fifth feature from writer-director Jeff Nichols, following Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories. I mention those titles because if you haven't seen them, you should – or you're missing out on one of the most vitally fresh careers in American cinema. The Arkansas-born Nichols, 37, knows how to tell a true story of injustice without underling emotions to trumpet a blaring self-importance. The film sneaks up on you, quiet-like, until its implications accumulate. And then it crushes you.

Nearly a decade later, the Supreme Court would use the Loving case to strike down the so-called Racial Integrity Act of 1924. But Nichols is less interested in the headline-making case than in two people so entrenched in systemic racism that they almost take it for granted. He traces the daily lives of this reserved couple, who moved to Washington, D.C., missing their own families, friends and the place they called home. The Lovings, both now dead, were not given to speech-making or wearing their emotions on their sleeve. But the pain of their exile is made palpable on screen.

Edgerton, the Aussie firebrand of Animal Kingdom and Warrior, finds bruised feelings in Richard's every gesture and agonized squint. It's Mildred, raising three children, who awakes to the changes coming in with the civil-rights movement. She writes a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which results in ACLU lawyer Bernard S. Cohen (Nick Kroll) taking the case. And Negga, an actress of Ethiopian and Irish descent, is all kinds of brilliant in a breakthrough performance that should have Oscar calling. When her expressive eyes, usually downcast, rise up to confront a world that needs changing, it’s impossible not to be moved. The stabbing simplicity of Negga's acting is breathtaking. The same goes for Loving. Nichols has given us a quietly devastating film that resonates for the here and now and marches to the cadences of history and the heart.