A simple and moving love story about a couple who just happened to change America.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving.

Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

For a movie about a momentous Supreme Court case—the 1967 decision that struck down the legitimacy of laws banning interracial marriage nationwide—Jeff Nichols’ Loving is disarmingly low-key. Aside from a single scene set in a courtroom, in which the justices appear only as blurred, distant shapes, there’s almost no debating, let alone grandstanding, in this simple but moving love story. The real-life Richard and Mildred Loving chose not to attend the hearing of their case before the Supreme Court; in telling their story, Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) makes essentially the same decision. Rather than rehearsing legal arguments about why the Lovings’ marriage was no less deserving of recognition than any other couple’s, Nichols shows us the truth of that statement in their domestic lives, the small courtesies and large sacrifices they share.

As the film begins, Richard and Mildred (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a white man and a woman of mixed race from the same small town in rural Virginia, have already fallen for each other. “I’m pregnant” are the first words we hear her say to him, and after a moment of shock, his reaction is one of slow-dawning joy. Later, we see from their body language as they sit around a campfire at a party that they’re utterly at home with each other and within their community, a poor town of farmers and laborers that’s sufficiently integrated for their relationship not to cause a major stir. But the same can’t be said of local officials, who, upon learning of the couple’s recent marriage in Washington, D.C., send Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his deputies to rouse the couple from their bed in the middle of the night and throw them in jail. Richard is released on bail, but when he tries to bail out his wife, the sheriff dresses him down, and Mildred, who’s nearing her last trimester of pregnancy, is stuck there for five nights.

After being indicted for violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act, the Lovings, pleading guilty on a lawyer’s advice, are spared jail time on one draconian condition: They must leave the state of Virginia, leave their families and home, for 25 years. Over the next few years they have three children, and with each one Mildred’s longing to be reunited with her own family and Richard’s determination to build his wife the house he once promised her grow keener. Neither Edgerton nor Negga are Americans, much less Southerners—he’s Australian, she’s Ethiopian-Irish—but they inhabit their characters so vividly, accents and all, that they never come off as cultural carpetbaggers. It helps that Nichols, himself an Arkansas native, resolutely steers clear of the too-common movie shorthand that condescendingly represents Southerners as ignorant hicks. Even Richard’s mother, who privately tells her son she disapproves of the marriage, is shown as a kind and decent woman who, in her role as the town midwife, eventually (and illegally) assists at the birth of her first grandchild.

After a few years in this state of legal banishment, Mildred writes a letter to then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy, asking if something can’t be done for their situation. When a lawyer for the ACLU (the comedian Nick Kroll) calls shortly afterward with an offer to take on the case pro bono, Mildred is eager to meet with him. But Richard, who’s taciturn to the point of being monosyllabic, isn’t persuaded that more publicity is what he and his wife’s already privacy-challenged marriage needs.

Life magazine even sends a photographer, Grey Villet (Nichols’ longtime pet leading man Michael Shannon), to capture images of the couple’s home life for a spread publicizing the case. In one of the movie’s best scenes, the three of them sit in the Lovings’ living room watching The Andy Griffith Show on TV. Chuckling at some nonsense perpetrated by Don Knotts, Richard finally relaxes enough to lay his head on his wife’s lap—a moment the photographer stealthily records by clicking the shutter without lifting the camera to his eye. Such an obvious gesture, he knows, would have spoiled the fragile moment he was trying to capture.

Nichols’ own camera, as operated by his longtime DP Adam Stone, works with a similar quiet discretion. If this thoughtful, modest, and impeccably acted movie has a flaw, it could be that Nichols is too gentle, too respectful of his subjects’ privacy. Richard and Mildred’s fierce love for each other and their family is clear, but we don’t often get a sense of how they feel about the racist legal system that abridged their and their children’s civil rights for nearly a decade. I wouldn’t expect or want either of these soft-spoken characters to mount a podium and start speechifying. But I might believe in the Lovings more, as a couple and as individuals, if they weren’t always so loving, if they boiled over every once in a while in frustration or hopelessness or rage. Richard does break down in tears once, and it’s perhaps the movie’s emotional high point, more revealing and unexpected than his eventual reaction to the Supreme Court victory. I understand and respect Nichols’ commitment to telling this story with maximal restraint and minimal melodrama—the exact inverse of the usual ratio for historical biopics—but at times Negga’s Mildred, in particular, struck me as almost unnaturally serene given the outrageousness of the situation she put up with for almost a decade. I wanted her to lose her cool just once, whether by lashing out, acting up, or breaking down.

One thing that Loving gets right in a way that few civil rights dramas do: It insists on racial discrimination as a systemic problem, not merely an interpersonal one. Sheriff Brooks and the other public officials who intervene in Richard and Mildred’s life may not be friendly to the integrationist cause, but what drives the couple out of state isn’t their pursuers’ individual ill will: It’s the persistence on the books of an unjust and cruel law that their court case will eventually overturn. Loving reminds us you don’t need to be a wild-eyed, epithet-spewing race-baiter to be a part of a social structure that perpetuates real injustices and causes real harm. (Even the kindly Virginia lawyer who first advises the Lovings to plead guilty in the hopes of a suspended sentence is, for all his good intentions, a part of the problem.) By the same token, Nichols’ film suggests that making change to that system doesn’t necessarily require a noble rhetoric-spouting hero. Two ordinary people can do it with true love, a lot of patience, and if at all possible a really good team of lawyers.