Interracial Romance Drama 'Loving' Earns Strong Movie Reviews

Understated performances and solid direction won over reviewers

NEW YORK, NY - Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga and Director Jeff Nichols attend 'Loving' New York Premiere at Landmark Sunshine Theater on October 26, 2016 in New York City. Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage

Today, record numbers of Americans marry across the color line, but when Richard and Mildred Loving eloped in 1958, interracial marriages were banned in their home state of Virginia and several others. The film “Loving,” released in theaters nationwide in November 2016, chronicles the pair’s courageous fight to overturn anti-miscegenation laws. After years of challenging bans against interracial unions, the Lovings scored a legal victory that would change the course of history when the Supreme Court decided in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws violated the constitution.

Directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the groundbreaking couple, “Loving” has earned strong marks from film reviewers. A documentary (“The Loving Story,”) and a television movie ("Mr. and Mrs. Loving") have previously been made about the Supreme Court Case, but “Loving” is the first major motion picture about the fight to legalize interracial marriage. The movie is not only an Oscar hopeful but also likely to expose young Americans in mixed relationships to the sacrifices the Lovings had to make just to live in the same household. The couple’s courage is one reason critics widely enjoyed the film.

Humble and Soft-Spoken

Variety’s Peter Debruge describes “Loving” as a humble and soft spoken film, void of the sorts of histrionics designed to win over members of the Academy come Oscars time.

“Though it will inevitably factor heavily in year-end Oscar conversations, Nichols’ film is seemingly less interested in its own glory than in representing what’s right, and though it features two of the best American performances of the past several years, from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (neither of whom are American, hailing from Australia and Ethiopia, respectively), its emotional impact derives precisely from how understated they are,” Debruge asserts.

While on one hand, he applauds this aspect of the film, Debruge also faults the film for being “too polite.” The critic doubts whether anyone who actually lived through the Jim Crow laws that the Lovings did would be so restrained as they retold their experiences during this tragic period of U.S. history.

Beautifully Restrained

Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek calls “Loving” a beautifully restrained film, remarking that Nichols tells the story of the interracial couple “in a way that feels immediate and modern, and not just like a history lesson.

“The movie’s simplest elements—like the sight of Edgerton’s Richard Loving driving off in the morning to his job as a brick mason, not just in another town or county but in another state—are what make it most effective,” she writes.

Zacharek describes how a Life magazine photographer turns up at the Lovings' home to document a rare interracial household for America. The photojournalist notices the couple laughing at "The Andy Griffith Show" and surreptitiously snaps away as Richard rests his head on Mildred’s lap.

"He’s a witness, as we are, to this scene of a couple trying to live a normal life under extraordinary circumstances," Zacharek says. "Nichols perfectly captures the immediacy, and the intimacy, of the moment.”

Best Acting Turns of the Year

Brian Tallerico of praises the acting in “Loving” in his review. He says that Edgerton and Negga give some of the best theatrical performances of the year.

“Edgerton, long a fascinating actor, has never been better than he is here, especially as the weight of his situation almost looks like it’s physically pushing him down,” Tallerico remarks.

“His eyes are squinty, his posture bent from hard labor and the concern over the well-being of his wife and family. As the Loving case became more high-profile, Richard Loving had to live with constant fear and the realization that his family was arguably safer if he would just leave them. Rarely has the oppressive, every-minute-of-every-day atmosphere of the impact of racism been captured as it is here.”

Tallerico also applauds Negga’s expressive eyes, “conveying so much inner monologue with just a downward glance or adoring look at her husband,” he says. “There’s a scene in which Mildred gets some surprising and good news via a phone call and Nichols knows two things. One, he knows that he shouldn’t give Mildred an exclamation or a monologue. Two, he knows not to leave Negga’s face. Her eyes say so much more than dialogue possibly could in this situation.

And that speaks to Nichols’ gifts as a filmmaker: one who understands how to use the tools at his disposal more than just writing expository dialogue.”

Like the Variety critic, Tallerico points out that Nichols doesn’t manipulate the viewer or offer his film up as Oscar bait, as so many other directors would with the material in question.

A Low-Key Approach

“Loving” doesn’t clobber you with its importance, according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. This critic, like the others in this round-up, recognizes what a quiet film the Nichols drama is. But McCarthy also acknowledges that Nichols doesn’t give in to widespread Hollywood stereotypes of the South.

The region “is not shown as being dominated by fire-breathing Klan members, drooling hillbillies and squinty-eyed cops, but rather by regular folks set in their ways on both sides of the color divide,” McCarthy writes. “Even Richard’s salt-of-the-earth mother, a midwife who handles the birth of their first baby, privately tells her son he shouldn’t have married Mildred, and while the main local cop (Marton Csokas) may seethe with potential sinister intent, he’s got the law on his side and doesn’t need to overstep it.”

But there are tense moments, such as when Richard thinks someone is trailing him on a lonely country road and when one of his children is struck by a car.

Nichols “has clearly made a deliberate decision to sidestep conventional hokum as well as to detail the development of the national civil rights movement via lots of documentary and news clips," McCarthy argues.

"There are quick glimpses of the space program and a couple of other TV snippets, but no mention of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Southern racial unrest or other grand historical movements of the period.”

The point of the film is to zero in on the Lovings because they weren’t a particularly political couple. They reluctantly became symbols of the interracial marriage movement, but, surely, they were aware and concerned about the context (the Jim Crow South) in which they fought to be husband and wife.

Although McCarthy doesn’t object to the film’s somewhat myopic focus, he does deem it a fault that the Lovings appear too reticent, even with one another. The couple’s relationship “is clearly very strong but lacks nuance and articulation.” Additional details about their family life and more communication between the Lovings could have given Richard more depth, McCarthy asserts.

Wrapping Up

“Loving” is part of a recent cinematic trend that’s yielded a number of films set during slavery and the Jim Crow era. Entertainers such as Snoop Dogg have grown tired of these sorts of period films, but “Loving” is an important movie in a time where the U.S. has more interracial marriages than ever. In diverse states such as California, such couples hardly draw a second glance, making it all the more necessary to remember the struggles of the Lovings to have their union recognized.

The couple wed fewer than 60 years ago, which means anyone in the Baby Boomer generation and up can recall the period in which they fought to legalize mixed marriages.

While such unions may seem commonplace today, the Lovings remind one of the price interracial couples had to pay for equal treatment and that even today such couples still contend with ignorance, bigotry and prejudice.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Interracial Romance Drama 'Loving' Earns Strong Movie Reviews." ThoughtCo, Nov. 5, 2016, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, November 5). Interracial Romance Drama 'Loving' Earns Strong Movie Reviews. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Interracial Romance Drama 'Loving' Earns Strong Movie Reviews." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 22, 2017).