Movie Review: “Loving” is the most important film of 2016

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So tall and thin her family nicknamed her “Stringbean,” Mildred’s eyes wear the resignation of generations. And if they’re downcast, looking at the ground, never daring to make eye contact with authority figures or even strangers, that was handed down to her, too.

Him? He’s had to learn all this as an adult. He’s white. It’s the 1950s.  But  Richard Loving had the temerity to fall in love with a black woman in the Jim Crow South.

Warm, intimate and brittle, “Loving” is the most important movie of 2016, and one of the best. It brings back a word the culture has all but buried and forgotten — “miscegenation,” the pejorative and fancy term racists used to condemn and outlaw “mixing of the races.”

It’s a period piece with a history lesson in it. The fact that it’s not ancient history is a national embarrassment, but the message is one at least half the country can take heart in. You can “lose the small battles, but win the big one.”

Ruth Negga (“World War Z”) is Mildred, who tells her boyfriend Richard (Joel Edgerton of “Black Mass”) she’s pregnant the first moment we see them together on screen. Richard barely flinches. Great. We’ll go to D.C., get married, and that will be that.

They’re in love, something the performers never let us forget over the course of their saga.

But married in D.C. means nothing in the even-more-segregated Virginia of the late 1950s. The county sheriff (Marton Csokas) stages a raid to arrest them. Their lawyer (the always-interesting Bill Camp) cops a plea. They agree to probation and exile. They must leave the Commonwealth, not to return in each other’s company, for 25 years.

The Lovings, who want from their government all anybody wants from a government, “to be left alone,” accept their fates. But Mildred despairs of raising their growing family in D.C. And when the Kennedy administration takes over in Washington, she resolves to get “some relief.”

“Loving,” the latest slice of the South from the great Southern director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter,” “Midnight Special”) takes us through the years the Lovings were caught up in the court system. They were reluctant champions of a couple of Jewish American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, slick opportunists anxious to take this case to the Supreme Court, and by the way, change American history in the process. A smirking Nick Kroll is amusing as Bernie Cohen, in-over-his-head but dogged enough to go the distance.

I love the way Nichols captures the common humanity that rural Southern blacks and whites could share, if history and geography conspired to let it happen. Richard is just another car guy, more at home racing and tinkering with his black friends and “Bean’s” brother (Alano Miller) than the racially resentful rednecks who are his culturally-ordained peer group.

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Negga plays Mildred as reserved and fearful, literally keeping her head down for much of her life. Edgerton, wearing a bristly crew-cut and bricklayer’s arms, has working class violence in his DNA. You can just feel it. But around Mildred, he just melts.

A lovely scene — Life Magazine sends a photographer (Nichols’ muse, Michael Shannon) to capture this court-bound couple at home. His shot seen around the world? Mildred laughing at “The Andy Griffith Show” (“The Pickle Story”), Rich laughing even harder, his head in her lap.

Nichols has built a quiet, low-key film of hidden passion and emotions kept in check, a story where the potential for something awful and violent to happen hangs over it, but where the downtrodden cling to hope and to relief from a court that, at least back then, promised “Equal Justice under Law.”

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements

Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Alano Miller, Marton Csokas, Bill Camp, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon

Credits:Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 2:03

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