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Richard and Mildred Loving did not want to become heroes for the civil rights movement. All they wanted was to mind their own business, and live quietly in rural Virginia. Loving, the new film from Jeff Nichols, is a quiet drama about ordinary, soft-spoken people whose interracial marriage becomes the subject of a seminal Supreme Court case. Nichols has no interest in legal procedure or even the interior lives of its characters. It maintains a respectful distance, and instead creates rhythms to unearth the deep bond between its two lead characters.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred, respectively. When we first meet them, she warmly tells him she is pregnant. Richard is not an effusive man, and yet Edgerton suggests depth of feeling through little moments where he drops his reserved façade. Richard and Mildred head to D.C. to get married, then return to their Caroline County home (it’s just outside Fredericksburg). Interracial marriage is illegal, so the couple is arrested and separated. The local judge offers a terrible bargain: live outside the state for twenty-five years, never returning together, and he will suspend their sentence. Basic dignity means they cannot abide the judge’s ruling, so eventually the couple gets the attention of ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll).

Up until now, Jeff Nichols has made genre films (mostly thrillers). What unites them is a curiosity about ordinary people in rural America, and that Michael Shannon appears in all of them. While Take Shelter and Midnight Special are high-concept, Loving strips away narrative until observation is what’s mostly left. We never see the courtship between Richard and Mildred, nor do we hear them articulate what they mean to each other. Instead, Nichols conveys their love through tender moments. Their understated connection contrasts with pervasive racism, exemplified by one particularly nasty, bigoted cop. There is no melodrama or heightened suspense, only white men whose hateful speech is amplified by the authority behind it.

The supporting characters, particularly those outside Richard and Mildred’s immediate circle, serve the material well. Kroll is a comic actor, so he is perhaps an unconventional choice for an ACLU lawyer. He always looks like he is about to smirk, which obliquely highlights the indignity of the court case. Richard in particular wants nothing to do with lawyers. Immediately before the Supreme Court hearing, Richard learns the grounds of Bernie’s argument, and Richard reacts with disgust – he cannot believe his country must resort to such base logic in order to legalize his marriage. Cohen is sympathetic, though visibly out of touch, and his opportunism stands in contrast to what Richard and Mildred desire. Michael Shannon appears as a photographer form Life Magazine, and he connects with the couple simply because he sees them as people first.

Richard and Mildred’s marriage happened in 1958, the Supreme Court case was in 1967, and yet Loving unfolds like no time has passed at all. Nichols does not supply title cards, and aside from one montage, the only suggestion of time passing is how their children grow older. This timeless quality is essential to the film’s message, since the bond between Richard and Mildred sustains them throughout their legal ordeal. There is a long sequence where Richard and Mildred struggle to build a home in DC – the production design renders their row house in an authentic way – but the yearning for country life is what anchors Negga’s perfect, selfless performance. She and Edgerton have little dialogue, and yet the actors convey the sense we know these people inside out. Accomplishing that is no small feat, and everyone involved pulls it off.

The marriage between Richard and Mildred Loving occurred three years before Barack Obama was born. Their lives – and what it meant for so many Americans – is inextricably tied to what this country would become. Loving is not an issue film, exactly, since it more about ordinary goodness than the fight for ideals. The film does not celebrate institutions, although shots of the marble, austere Supreme Court (seen from the ground perspective) almost seems like a grim joke nowadays. To Jeff Nichols, family is always more important than country. The Lovings did not lead by example, and instead reasonably expected their country to tolerate their mutual respect. Once the highest court recognized their right to love one another, America truly began its road to greatness.