In 1969, the state of Virginia adopted the slogan "Virginia is for lovers." The phrase — dreamed up by ad execs hoping to attract tourists to all manner of natural splendor — was part of a larger marketing campaign intended to encourage all visitors and residents to "live passionately." It's a catchy, however platitudinous, motto. But it's also bizarre that there's not more to it than that. Because just a few years before Virginia became the state for lovers, it was in the national spotlight for being quite the opposite. Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were a young couple who — upon learning that Mildred was pregnant with their first child in 1958 — hoped to marry. Unable to wed in their home state, where interracial marriage violated the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and was legally a crime, they traveled to Washington, D.C., to obtain a marriage certificate before returning to the small town of Central Point, VA. Not long thereafter, police broke into their bedroom, whisking them off to jail in the middle of the night. According to the judge who tried their case, the Lovings had defied the state's miscegenation code, a classifiable felony. "Almighty God created the races white, Black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents," he wrote in his opinion. "And but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." Mildred and Richard were sentenced to one year in prison apiece, which could be suspended if they agreed to leave the state and not return together for a period of 25 years. With no known recourse available to them, the Lovings relocated to D.C.
Over the next decade, the Lovings had three children against the backdrop of the mounting civil rights movement. Mildred, who felt isolated from her family and didn't want her children to grow up surrounded by pavement, wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred her to the ACLU, which took on the Lovings' case. Over the next several years, the couple, guided by a young lawyer named Bernie Cohen, failed on their way up through the courts, until, on June 12, 1967 — now known as Loving Day — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia's miscegenation laws violated the 14th Amendment. The Lovings, and interracial couples across the state, though not the nation, were free to live as husband and wife. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, this historic tale is getting a refresh on the big screen in a film that's already receiving no minor amount of Oscar buzz. Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in what looks to go down as her breakout role, Loving was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, a filmmaker capable of drawing grace from dire circumstances, without dampening the seriousness of the subject matter. The movie is subtle, full of quiet power, and showcases finely crafted performances from all but one of its key players. Nick Kroll, as the Lovings' attorney, is doing his best up there — and it's not all bad. But it's difficult to reconcile a face so associated to lowbrow comedic shtick with the heartfelt young lawyer who has doubtlessly experienced his own fair share of discrimination. As Cohen, Kroll is earnest to the point of discomfort, always seemingly on the cusp of breaking character. His scenes take you out of an otherwise seamless narrative. I wish he was on a dimmer switch that could be turned down. But whatever damage done by Kroll is made up for by Edgerton and Negga, whose on-screen chemistry isn't so much electric as it is raw and achingly vulnerable. There are moments in the movie — particularly one in which he tells her that he can protect her, even though they both know that is a lie — where they embrace in the darkness, and Loving becomes painful to look at. Theirs is a quiet kind of love. It has to be. Dialed up, it becomes more dangerous.
That's not to say there isn't levity to the way Nichols tells the real-life Lovings' story. A particularly sweet, light series of scenes arrive when Life magazine photographer Grey Villet (played pitch-perfect by Michael Shannon) comes to snap the Lovings in their daily lives in advance of Loving v. Virginia winding toward the Supreme Court. Villet's photos showed Mildred and Richard watching television, doing the dishes, and cuddling with their kids, arms around one another at the end of the day. The reenactment of this Life shoot is a moving reminder of what family looks like — what love looks like — and what should not encumber two people who want to build a life together. Most audience members will go into this film already knowing the ending. But if you somehow missed the memo, or the high school American history lesson, here it is: The Lovings win their case in a unanimous decision. In the movie's saddest moments, it's actually a comfort to have this knowledge in your back pocket, though it won't keep you from shedding some tears. "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival," the opinion reads. Not so long ago, Loving v. Virginia was used as a precedent to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Hopefully, it will not take 50 years to make a film about that groundbreaking legislative shift that does justice to the story in the same was that Loving does for Loving v. Virginia. The truth is that we need these stories, writ large on the silver screen, to remind us of how far we have — and have not — come. Loving debuts in theaters on Friday, November 4.