In the opening scene of Loving, Jeff Nichols’ new film, we see Mildred, who is black, tell Richard, her white partner, she is carrying his first child. “Good,” comes his slow, masculine reply. “That’s real good.” It’s 1958 in rural Virginia, a stretch of America still very much in the shadow of Jim Crow. Mildred is 18, with black and Native American ancestry. Richard is a bricklayer, very much a blue-collar man. We meet the pair, who are depicted in this fictionalisation as deeply in love, as they prepare to cross state lines and get married in Washington, DC. But as they return home, they violate Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act – a law based on the science of the time, 'miscegenation'. A few weeks later, after a tip-off from a neighbour, the police burst into their home in the dead of night. They are arrested, imprisoned, and ordered by a judge to dissolve their union or leave the state for 25 years. The judge’s reasoning? To avoid “spurious issue” – normally referred to as children. The Lovings’ 10-year fight to live as man and wife culminated in the 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving vs. Virginia, which overruled anti-miscegenation laws nationwide. It was a landmark moment in the civil rights movement, yet the couple were not present in the courtroom that day. They stayed at home, so allergic were they to publicity. Nichols, who is known for Mud and Take Shelter, focuses on the humbleness of the couple's ambition. Mildred, who is played by the London-based, Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga, and Richard, played by Joel Edgerton, wished for little more than to live together as a married couple in their home town. They wanted to be left alone so they could get on with trying to be happy. This study of ordinariness in the face of extraordinarily cruel and evasive laws is told with an inhibited, deeply restrained dramaturgy, marked out by scenes of stripped-down power. Sat on the edge of their bed in near-dark, we see Edgerton’s Richard tell his wife, over and over: “I’ll take care of you.” He can’t. We, the audience, know that. Deep down, maybe he does, too. But what else would you tell your partner? That’s all anyone, at base, should want from a marriage; the commitment that someone will look out for you, in return for you doing the same. It’s the closest the film gets to losing its cool. Yet how else should such a story be told? Racists have to debase those they consider beneath them. They have to depict those with a different skin, a different culture, as savages, incapable of practising restraint over the impulses we all have. The Jim Crow racists in this film seem leeringly obsessed with the Lovings' sex life: they can’t actually care about each other, surely? They just want to fuck, like animals.
By refraining from portraying the Lovings' romance in these terms, the film refuses to operate on a level a racist might understand. Through the story it tells and the way that story is told, we’re given a lesson in how to live with dignity. Loving, it is hoped, might form part of a new canon of western cinema – one that isn’t overtly political yet chooses to reflect, in a very human way, on the diversity that forms the basis of that complicated, messy experiment otherwise known as liberal democracy. Protest can manifest itself in many ways; here, it is quiet, factual, coherent. In that vein, it’s worth pausing to consider the life of Ruth Negga. Modern movie stars in the UK tend to be moneyed, privately educated and London-raised, plucked from a choice range of universities and drama schools. Negga was born in Ethiopia – her parents met while her Irish mother was working as a nurse in Addis Ababa. She was raised in Limerick, Ireland, after her father died in a car accident when she was a child. She graduated with an acting BA from the Samuel Beckett Centre in Dublin, and has had to battle her way through the industry ever since. She trooped up to the Edinburgh Festival throughout her 20s and worked, until very recently, in television, on short films, taking tiny parts in middling features, voicing video games, and in the theatre. She did the audition circuit in LA plenty of times, but never got far. Talking to The Irish Sun, she suggested her heritage had something to do with it. “I’ve gone into auditions and I think they have an assumption about me because they’ve seen my photo,” she told the paper. “Then I open my mouth and they say: ‘Where exactly are you from? And you were born in Ethiopia? But you’re Irish, but you also kind of sound English. That’s really strange.’” At the age of 35, 13 years after her first credit, Negga won the starring role in Loving. I challenge you to tear your eyes from her. And in three weeks' time, I expect her to surprise the Academy by taking home the Best Actress Oscar, for which she is deservingly nominated. Loving is in cinemas now.