Appropriately enough, it was Jeff Nichols’s wife who finally compelled him to write and direct Loving, the story of the real-life interracial couple who in 1958 were jailed by Virginia police for the crime of getting married. “If you don’t do this movie,” Missy Nichols told her husband, “I’ll divorce you.”

Nichols, of course, had other reasons for tackling the project. Richard and Mildred Loving’s years of being harassed—a judge banished them from their home state and decreed that they must live apart—and ensuing Supreme Court case made for riveting viewing in the 2012 HBO documentary The Loving Story. That’s when the offer of a narrative film about the couple reached Nichols, who had written and directed the neo-folk tale Mud and the paranoid thriller Take Shelter.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, a historic epicenter of racial unrest, Nichols was deeply affected by the documentary’s present-day resonance. “We’re living in a time when people get so entrenched in their political and ideological mind-sets that they go into their corners and hunker down, ready to fight,” he says. “They talk about ideas and stop talking about actual human beings. Now, more than maybe any other year that I can remember, it’s amazing to be able to give an example of the pure expression of love like that which existed between Richard and Mildred. They weren’t political activists or preaching an ideology. They just wanted to be left alone.”

But why would a 37-year-old white man, who admits he’s “absolutely not the person to explain the complexities and viciousness of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s,” be the one to bring the Lovings’ story back into focus? The answer is surprisingly personal. “I began to connect with Richard Loving because I saw my working-class rural Arkansas grandfather in him,” Nichols explains. “He and I would spend hours together and he’d maybe say five words. Richard was a bricklayer, extraordinarily strong and capable but, like my grandfather, not a tough guy. I understood him. I felt the story in my bones. Any time I got cold feet about making the movie, I’d go back to Richard and how he wanted to protect the intelligent, elegant, soft-spoken Mildred. That was my anchor.”

Focus Features

Focus Features

For these reasons, Loving is more than a muted, beautifully period-detailed showpiece with eloquent performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton; it’s a study in empathy. “Empathy can raise up a film out of ‘entertainment,’” Nichols says. “Like Dog Day Afternoon, where you empathize with a man who robs a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. Loving isn’t trying to get people to support gay marriage. It isn’t even trying to get people to support interracial marriage. It’s a movie where the big villain is the time in which two loving people weren’t allowed to live the way they wanted. It’s the human side of the conversation.”