"Loving" is the story of an interracial couple who spent nine years in and out of courts and jails fighting for the right to share a marital bed in Caroline County, Virginia, at the height of the Jim Crow era.

In “Loving,” relative unknown Ruth Negga delivers a perfectly understated and stoic performance. With the most soulful eyes I’ve seen in a while, Negga communicates volumes with a glance or gesture. Her Mildred Loving is one half of an interracial couple who spent nine years in and out of courts and jails fighting for the right to share a marital bed in Caroline County, Virginia, at the height of the Jim Crow era. Together with Joel Edgerton’s subtle turn as the don’t-want-no-trouble Richard Loving, who’s rarely without a mouth full of chewing tobacco, the couple becomes reluctant civil rights activists in a fight for equality. They were not even present at the Supreme Court that monumental day in 1967 when the justices heard their case.

“Loving” is a departure for director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”), who also wrote the script. It’s a slow (sometimes too slow) burn, more sparse than we’re used to from him. The Lovings don’t say much. Nichols lets his camera do a lot of the talking for them. He lingers on the lush greenness of the Virginia countryside that’s harshly interrupted by the concrete jungle surrounding the Washington, D.C., slum they are forced to flee to after a narrow-minded judge bans the Lovings from the Old Dominion. Mildred doesn’t say it often, but she wants to go home. Later, they take the risk, living in exile in a modest farmhouse. She cooks, cleans and rears their three children. He lays brick, a metaphor Nichols returns to at various points to underscore the Loving’s concrete marriage and their resolve in the fight for civil rights. At night, the Lovings watch and laugh along with “The Andy Griffith Show,” his head in her lap. Nichols, a native Southerner, doesn’t miss a beat in capturing the commonplace. He also eschews courtroom theatrics to focus on the more personal details of the Lovings, whom the director obviously respects and admires. They’re like the black-and-white Ford Victoria Richard drives, with the two tones beautifully coexisting.
Michael Shannon, who’s been in all five of Nichols’ films, is terrific in a small part as Life magazine photographer Grey Villet. Will Dalton and Terri Abney are strong in support as Mildred’s siblings, ditto for Andrene Ward-Hammond as Miss Laura, Mildred’s only friend in D.C. who urges her write a letter to Bobby Kennedy while they watch MLK’s March on Washington. “You need to get you some civil rights,” she says. And so Mildred does.

The film might be about the Lovings’ landmark lawsuit in which the Supreme Court ruled interracial marriage legal, but it’s an affecting love story at its core. When their American Civil Liberties lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), asks Richard if wants to relay a message to the judge, Richard replies: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
LOVING (PG-13 for thematic elements.) Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Marton Csokas, Alano Miller, Christopher Mann. Grade: A-