‘Loving’ Movingly Retells The Story Of A Civil Rights Battle

First of all, let’s get this part out of the way: Both Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are outstanding in Loving — a film based on the true life story of Richard and Mildred Loving (which just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival), an interracial married couple who won a Supreme Court case against the state of Virginia and the laws that made their marriage illegal. Also: Director Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite directors working today and seems to somehow get better every single time. But, the person I want to write about first is Nick Kroll. Nick Kroll!

Kroll plays Bernie Cohen, an inexperienced attorney who represents the Lovings on behalf of the ACLU. This could have easily been a disaster of a role for Kroll. You know these types of roles: In the midst of the heavy-handed drama surrounding an important topic, a wacky comic relief character shows up and then the movie becomes something else. (An example I’m thinking of is Steve Carell’s role in last year’s little-seen Freehold. Just take my word for it.) But here Nick Kroll doesn’t overdo it. Kroll has a look on his face that reads, “Oh, I better not mess this up! This is a big role for me!” which happens to work perfectly for a young lawyer with little experience who’s about to try a case in front of the United States Supreme Court. Loving was already great, but when Kroll shows up, the film somehow becomes better. Negga and Edgerton will get the due accolades, but Kroll deserves a lot of credit for not screwing up a role that would be easy to screw up.

What’s remarkable about the way the Lovings are portrayed is how they seem like observers in their own fight. These aren’t dramatic people fighting for their obvious human dignity. These are two people who just want to be left alone to live their lives. Of course, Virginia won’t leave them alone, threatening both with a prison sentence unless they move out of the state. The two move to Washington, D.C. (where their marriage Virginia didn’t recognize took place). Unhappy in D.C., the two secretly move back to a remote farm.

They never asked to be civil rights heroes. Mildred did write a letter to Bobby Kennedy — and that’s how the ACLU was notified of their case — but the court case was presented to the Lovings, not the other way around. The Lovings agree to it basically as a means to an end. If this will allow them to live in peace, in their home state, together, then let’s do it. When offered to attend the Supreme Court hearings in person, both decline. Again, they just want to live their lives.

While watching the film, it’s notable by just how recent this all is. The final Supreme Court verdict was handed down in 1967. This is the same year the Beatles were singing about LSD on their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (I know, John Lennon always denied this, but whatever), yet a white person couldn’t marry a black person in the state of Virginia, a state that, 41 years later, a black presidential candidate would carry on his way to the White House. (And it shouldn’t be lost on anyone how, 15 years from now, people will look back on anti-gay marriage laws the same way. It’s astounding that was also in our so recent history.)

Loving is Jeff Nichols’ finest film to date and a culmination of everything he’s worked for until this point. This is Jeff Nichols’ personal masterpiece. It joins his intimate aesthetic to an important true life story, building on what he’s done in films like Mud, Take Shelter, and this year’s earlier Midnight Special. That film showed he was a master of strange fiction, but the same skills serve him well in dealing with reality. And Ruth Negga is a lock for a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. And like always, Joel Edgerton will get overlooked because Joel Edgerton always gets overlooked. Seriously, what’s the deal with that? He’s one of the best actors working today.

Oh, and then Nick Kroll shows up!

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.