Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in a scene from the film "Loving." (Focus Features)

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in a scene from the film "Loving." (Focus Features)

Some chapters of recent American history make you do a double take. Here's one: Less than fifty years ago it was illegal in seventeen states, including Texas, for a white person to marry a black person.

Say what? (Shakes head. Looks it up again. Confirms.)

Not until 1967, when the Supreme Court settled the case Loving vs. Virginia, were such antiquated miscegenation laws struck down.

A new movie, Loving, spotlights the couple at the heart of that case. Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) never saw themselves as civil rights firebrands or martyrs for a cause. They were just two people in love, and they did what couples in love are encouraged to do. They got married.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in a scene from the film "Loving." (Focus Features)

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in a scene from the film "Loving." (Focus Features)

Focus Features/TNS

Then they got sent to prison.

Pretty shocking. Except, as writer/director Jeff Nichols realized, not really.

"It just seemed absurd but also completely understandable," Nichols says by phone. "Yes, of course that happened, of course there were seventeen states in 1967 that forbid marriage on the basis of race. Of course they did."

The miscegenation laws were holdovers from slavery and par for the course of Jim Crow, which sought to systemically deny non-white people basic rights. If that meant kicking in the door of a married couple in the middle of the night and hauling them off to jail, so be it. That was the law, as late as 1967.

Richard Loving was a brick mason, a drag racing aficionado and a man of few words. He never felt comfortable with the news coverage surrounding the case. But he wanted to live in his home state with his wife, and under the Virginia law he couldn't. As played by Edgerton, he'd rather seethe over his circumstances than speak out about them.

Neither he nor Mildred attended the Supreme Court arguments for Loving vs. Virginia.

"If you're going to pick poster children for the civil rights movement, don't pick Richard Loving," Nichols says. "He was a brick mason who was just trying to do his job, and his job was to work hard and provide for his family. They didn't really care about what you felt or thought. They just cared that people were forcing them to act a certain way. They did not have an agenda."

Loving drives home this theme with stoic efficiency. It lets us see Richard and Mildred as a devoted couple battling a law based in a prior century. The film smartly emphasizes the couple's unremarkable qualities, the everyday traits and exchanges that add up to life for two people in love.

Mildred and Richard Loving in January 1965.  (File Photo/The Associated Press)

Mildred and Richard Loving in January 1965.  (File Photo/The Associated Press)

AP

Nichols, who lives in Austin, is quick to point out how the story resonates today. At its most basic level, Loving is about righting injustices of the past, and solidifying the right to, well, love.

These aren't issues that go away.

"Now more than ever we're dealing with issues of racial equality and marriage equality," Nichols says. "A lot of people have different views about these things. What we need to remember, as heated as our opinions can get, is that the center of all these debates are people."

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