Jeff Nichols is a 37-year-old graduate of Central High, and in the span of the last decade or so, he’s gone from editing his films in his laundry room to securing a reputation as one of the best directors of his generation. Despite being a filmmaker at a time when making a studio flick means relinquishing creative control for all but a few Scorseses and Spielbergs, Nichols has been able to make the movies he wants to make, the way he wants to make them — writing, directing and giving the last word on which version makes it to audiences. For Nichols, that degree of creative control is as much a necessity as an accolade. His stories tend to be told sparsely, without much backstory; too much information could break the spell. If he has a signature, it’s that minimalist approach, although his films share other motifs: his brother, Ben Nichols (of the band Lucero), has written music for every one of Nichols’ films, and actor Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel,” “Boardwalk Empire”) who starred in Nichols’ debut “Shotgun Stories,” has been in every one of his films since.
Nichols’ fifth film, “Loving,” debuted at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and has generated Oscar talk, especially for the film’s leads, Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving) and Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving).
In a strictly technical sense, “Loving” is about the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned anti-miscegenation laws, removing restrictions against interracial marriage in the United States. That’s a little misleading, though, at least insofar as that description conjures up images of courtroom drama. The film devotes very little screen time to the courtroom at all, and the time spent there is perfunctory. There is not a single lengthy oration. The dialogue, when it exists at all, is simple — clipped, even. Nichols strips all that away, making “Loving” exactly what its name implies: a love story. It’s a film about two people who just wanted to be left alone to provide for their family without controversy. For the Lovings, controversy didn’t need to be courted; it walked up to the front door and barged right in.
True to the events that happened in the summer of 1958, a scene early in the film depicts the night that Central Point, Va., police raided the Lovings’ home on an anonymous tip suggesting that the two were, as the criminal charges against them would read — “cohabitating as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Having gone to Washington, D.C., five weeks earlier to get married after Mildred discovered she was pregnant, the couple became aware that the cops had been asking around about them, and hung their marriage license on the wall as a sign of their union’s legitimacy. “I honestly think that was a calculated move on Richard’s part,” Nichols told me at an October press event in Atlanta. “I mean, who hangs their marriage license on the wall? I’m married, and I don’t have my marriage license hanging on the wall. That might also be because I don’t appreciate its existence as much as Richard and Mildred did.”
The police had come at night hoping to find the two in coitus. They found the couple asleep, and in a cruelly symbolic act, the marriage certificate was the very item used as evidence to convict the Lovings of violating the so-called Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
“I can hear Richard saying something like that,” Nichols said. “You know, ‘Well, there’s the paper. You can’t arrest us. I did it right, I went down and got a paper.’ He didn’t understand that intricacy, he just thought, ‘Look, I got the paper. So we’re good, right?’ And, of course, they weren’t.”
By the time the Lovings were arrested, the laws banning marriage between black people and white people were nearly 100 years old, a holdover from the Reconstruction Era that remained law in Arkansas and 15 other states, all of them in the South. What’s more, the lines demarcating those racial categories were increasingly ambiguous, often enforced by an arcane (and scientifically tenuous) “one drop of blood” rule.
With an Irish lilt that announces her upbringing in Limerick, Negga related how she came across a Ken Burns documentary in school that portrayed the post-Civil War period in American history.
“How strange and sad and complicated it is, and was. When you read about it, it’s almost laughable: the pains that the government went to make sure that — God forbid [that miscegenation should occur] — knowing full well that people were going to bed with each other, sleeping with each other. It was a fact, but people didn’t want to acknowledge it.” That history hangs heavily in the film’s air, an unspoken rule about which Richard and Mildred are — in the eyes of the court — yet to be enlightened. “You don’t know any better, do you … it’s God’s law,” a police officer tells Richard. “He made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason.”
Richard’s own mother repeats a version of this admonition to him, too, and not from a place of disdain for Mildred; she and Mildred share household duties, and the Lovings violate the terms of their sentence (and therefore, risk jail time) so that Richard’s mother can be the one to deliver their baby back home, rather than in the concrete jungle of D.C.
In the film, she and the officer spouting God’s supposed theory of anti-miscegenation aren’t so much the enemy as they are products of the intangible heft of systematic racism, the result of intolerance having worked its way into so many nooks and crannies of the psyche that it’s nearly indistinguishable from genuine concern for Richard and Mildred. It’s messy and nebulous, and in response, Nichols makes the Lovings’ struggle with that oppressor achingly subdued. Their exile is psychologically exhausting, but bereft of the physical violence and historic speeches we’re used to seeing in films that more broadly address the stories of black lives during the civil rights era.
“What bothered people about them was their existence,” Nichols said. “They naturally fell in love with one another. I believe that. It’s not an affectation of the film. People didn’t like that they existed. And how do you argue with that, when someone tells you they don’t like the nature of who you are? You have no argument for that.” With a strength that speaks through their shared silence, the Lovings don’t argue with that, at least not vociferously. Upon their conviction in 1959, the couple reluctantly moved to D.C., their sentence suspended in exchange for a 25-year exile from the only place they’d ever lived — and from their families.
Against the backdrop of the march on Washington, “Loving” is distant from that sphere of activism. As Mildred tells her cousin while they watch the march on television, “They might as well be halfway around the world.” The film operates in the domestic realm, something that Edgerton says was part of Nichols’ vision.
“So much of [Jeff’s] world is kind of surrounded by love and family, which is very important to him. Working with Jeff is very specific and particular, and he brought it back to that personal space. His choice was to keep it out of the courts, and to keep it in the space between this couple.”
For Nichols, that space between Richard and Mildred is the wellspring from which this story comes. “When you write a screenplay, you’ve got lines of action and you have lines of dialogue, and when you look at the spacing, the lines of dialogue take up a lot more room. I think a lot of times writers just say, ‘Oh, let me give an intro: “It’s a motel room with a green couch,” and let’s just get to the dialogue, because that’s what the story is.’ And I don’t believe that. I think the way characters move in a room, the way they move in relation to one another, it’s all behavior.”
As is the case with most parents, the Lovings’ hands stay mostly busy: Mildred irons with one arm while holding a baby in the other, Richard lays brick and squints at the sun. Their protest is waged with chores and routine, with a quiet resolve to live their lives peacefully under an implied contract to be left alone in exchange for staying out of the sight of Virginians. “Their marriage was not an act of defiance,” Nichols said. “It was not a symbol. They were not trying to push an agenda on people — quite the opposite, they didn’t want someone else’s agenda pushed on them. And their marriage for that decade that we were fighting — that was the defiance. They could have divorced one another. They could’ve conceivably divorced one another and even lived together. But they didn’t want to do that.”
There’s a sadness to the way Mildred and Richard hang their heads after being convicted, and that pervasive desperation allows us to connect with the Lovings in an intimate way, in a way that’s markedly differently from the way we connect with the stories of human rights heroes who made their demands more forthrightly, especially in moments of great triumph or drama.
I asked Nichols if it ever felt difficult to trust that the silence would speak in the way he intended. “Audiences are so educated now; everybody watching this movie grew up on visual storytelling,” he said. “We know when a person walks in a room and cuts a look one way, if they’re the good guy or the bad guy or what. So, no, we never worried about it. It was always, to us, the fairest representation of who we thought Richard and Mildred were. Because that’s how they operated. I really believe that. Watching this archive footage, they weren’t bombastic people, obviously. So, it was representative of who they were, and I think it’s more beautiful. It’s more telling if you can allow an audience to see something and have a thought and opinion about it, as opposed to being told something. It’s a different part of your brain.”
One hopes Negga will join Shannon — and more recently, Edgerton, who starred in Nichols’ “Midnight Special” — in becoming a regular in Nichols’ films. The two create entire worlds between lines of dialogue, and their chemistry speaks through those silences. Negga, who has expressed her own reservations about public speaking, allows her character’s resolve to grow incrementally but visibly, and does so mostly by saying very little.
“I love seeing her come into her own, and blossom in her confidence,” Negga said. “Just because she’s shy doesn’t necessarily mean that she doesn’t have any self-belief, and just because she’s quiet doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a steel thread running through her. You get the sense that, on and off the camera — even though their voices may have changed, their posture, they’re really truthful people. They are who they are, and I think that’s why people respond to these people, both in [Nancy Buirski’s] documentary [“The Loving Story”] and in our film.” Peggy Loving, the only daughter and the only surviving child of Richard and Mildred’s, has seen “Loving” and spent time with Nichols, Edgerton and Negga during its development. Negga intimated that meeting Peggy Loving reinforced for her the nature of the role as a “joyful responsibility.” “I don’t think either of us really said a word, but I don’t think we had to,” Negga said, “because I think that energies are very easily read. She did say, ‘I think you have the right spirit to play my mother,’ and that’s priceless.”
Edgerton believes the space between lines of dialogue says a lot “about how injustice breeds silence and submission.” In the face of the law, whether it’s the Virginia police department or the lawyers trying to convince him to take his case to the Supreme Court, Richard’s eyes dart around in distrust.
“Why is he not talking?” Edgerton asked. “Why are his eyes moving around that way and why, out of all these thoughts he’s having, is he only choosing to say one instead of the 50 million things he could have said?” Richard is not fond of the limelight, to say the least, or of semantics. In a moment of pure poetry, Richard is at the table with his and Mildred’s extended, blended family when he’s asked a question of great import: “Whatcha like, Rich? Ford or Chevy?” to which he replies “Don’t make much difference.”
People will likely laud the film for its Southernness by merit of perfectly honed accents from Negga and Edgerton, or for the faded plaids and beads of sweat that set the scene, and they’ll be right in doing so. The rhythms between Richard and his midwife mother, especially, are the familial beats of working, rural people; both times Richard enters his mother’s house with a “Hey, mama,” he’s met without a kiss or even a glance, but with a clipped, no-nonsense reply: “They’re out back” or ” Put some wood on the stove.”
There’s also, though, a specifically Southern strain of “live and let live” to Richard’s ethos. “It’s a libertarian idea,” Nichols said. “Richard was a libertarian. It’s like, ‘just don’t tell me what to do.’ It’s a problem I have with a lot of facets of the conservative movement to strive for limited government, to strive for libertarian principles; that’s not something you get to apply just some of the time — like, ‘I don’t want you to come take my gun, but I’m gonna tell you who you can marry. I don’t want you coming and taking my earnings with taxes, but you can’t have an abortion.’ It’s the same issue with free speech. You don’t get it just some of the time.”
In the film, Bernard Cohen (played to great effect by Nick Kroll) and the ACLU cohorts who represent the Lovings in front of the Supreme Court are the antitheses of Richard: real talkers, slick performers. Nichols recalls the way the real-life Cohen came across in Buirski’s 2012 documentary “The Loving Story”: “He’s a bit of a showman,” Nichols said. “He uses this voice — if you watch the documentary, he uses it on camera — it’s almost like scenes from ‘The Office’ or something. He always has a cutting eye over to the camera, like ‘Did you get it?’ ” Despite undoubtedly noble aspirations to overturn an oppressive law, the legal pack in “Loving” is the eager, unwitting embodiment of Northern condescension, something to which Nichols is no stranger.
“The first time I really encountered it — I was a little sheltered from growing up in Arkansas and then going to college in North Carolina — was really when I first started reading reviews of ‘Shotgun Stories.’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow. They view these people as buffoons. And I don’t.’ And I would take offense to that. Or even when it was a positive review, they would always speak down about the characters. I mean, maybe they were doing that because of their socioeconomic status, but I don’t think so. I think they were doing it because they were Southerners.”
“Loving” is set in Virginia, but Nichols’ Arkansas connection will undoubtedly predispose audiences here to view the film in the light of our own civil rights history. At a special screening of “Loving” Monday night in Little Rock, two of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair, were in attendance, and $10,000 was raised for the Tiger Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits Central High School. Nichols, who graduated from Central on the 40th anniversary of the desegregation crisis, talked afterward about the ways in which filming “Loving” made him more aware of his own privilege.
“I’ve always been a pretty liberal guy. Going to Central High, I felt like I knew something about the history in this country regarding the civil rights movement. The reality is I knew nothing … and I still don’t. I’m a white guy born in 1978 in the suburbs of Little Rock. I’ve recognized a lack of point of view that I have for this. There’s a privilege I’ve been afforded that so many people today aren’t afforded. Even though I’ve been aware of it and I’ve been an advocate for fighting against it, I’d never really come to face to face with my limitations.”
“When I see people come out of this film,” Negga said, “it’s like … something’s happened. There’s a radiance about this film, because you’re seeing normal human beings fight an obstacle. And it’s actually extraordinary — that’s what it is.”
Regardless of how you’re personally impacted by watching it, part of the film’s success occurred before it ever hit theaters. “Loving” shines light on two figures whose lives, despite their preference for keeping to themselves, impacted the course of the civil rights movement profoundly. Audiences “know about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” Edgerton said, “and it’s interesting that this is not more well-known, even though the case was cited in the cases about gay marriage in this country. … This might put their names in the mouths of people, and they’ll become part of that timeline of civil rights history.” Negga added, “It’s a tapestry, really, and there are many people missing, especially black women. I think that this is a celebration of that, of those missing pieces.”