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Why ‘Loving’ Film’s Portrayal of Interracial Marriage is Relevant Today

Love and Justice: Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton Talk New Film, 'Loving' 2:24

Nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court struck down the last remaining bans on interracial marriage in the U.S. with its landmark Loving v. Virginia decision, polling suggests mixed-race couplings are on the rise, and the public at large is overwhelmingly comfortable with them.

But a number of recent headlines -- from the backlash to Cheerios and Old Navy ads featuring mixed-race couples to the online invective directed at "Luke Cage" star Mike Colter for having a white wife -- suggest that there is still far more work to do to normalize interracial romance in America.

Amid these contentious cultural conversations comes the new film "Loving," which opens in select cities on Friday. It dramatizes not just the the iconic Supreme Court case, but provides insight into the real life couple that inspired it, Mildred and Richard Loving.

Related: Cannes Embraces 'Loving', Film on Case That Ended Interracial Marriage Ban

Like that now-deceased duo, the film itself is soft spoken and tentative, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of gravitas. It already has considerable Oscar buzz, especially for its two leads, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, and it's sure to be a talker because of the story's parallels to the modern marriage equality fight. But according to its director Jeff Nichols, this movie has a higher purpose in mind.

'Loving' actress on the story behind the film 4:46

"I want people to walk out of the theater not necessarily thinking about the politics, but the human beings at the center of those politics," Nichols told NBC News. "I think there are a lot of people we run into that have no concept of Richard and Mildred, or that anti-miscegenation laws existed at all."

Nichols counts himself among those who were ignorant of the Lovings' story until fairly recently. He first learned of the couple's crusade to have their union respected four years ago. He saw the celebrated HBO documentary "The Loving Story," directed by Nancy Buirski, and was struck by the Lovings' quiet dignity.

Nichols' adaptation, similarly, is anything but histrionic. Although it does depict the brutality of how the Lovings were treated — at one point being ripped out of their bed and jailed separately simply because they were a married mixed-race couple, or in another moment having their own children being used to make the case against their marriage — Nichols didn't want audiences to feel sorry for the protagonists. He wanted viewers to empathize with them.

'Loving' stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton on film about landmark case 4:58

At early screenings around the country, including one of the first at the new African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C., it appears that the film is having the desired effect.

"I can’t tell you how many people have walked up to me saying, 'This is my story,'" said Nichols.

Related: Old Navy Interracial Ad Resurrects Heated Debate

More conversation may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to curing what remnants remain of opposition to mixed race marriage.

In August, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which surveyed students at the University of Nebraska, determined that when viewing engagement photos of mixed-race couples, participants registered cerebral "disgust" even if they didn't verbally express it and were more apt to recognize same-race couples as human beings.

The primary author of the study, Allison Skinner, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington and in an interracial relationship herself, concedes that while the sample size is small and may not be indicative of the nation at large, the results should raise questions about how settled opinions are about the topic.

"I think there has been a big change in society about whether it's OK to explicitly acknowledge race," she told NBC News. "It's hard to address problems that we don't acknowledge are there."

Image: Peggy Loving Peggy Loving, the daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving
Peggy Loving, the daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving, attends the premiere of "Loving" at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Oct. 26, 2016, in New York. Evan Agostini / Invision via AP

With Black Lives Matter protests, coupled with shootings by and of white police officers, and recent surveys suggesting there is anxiety over a perceived spike in racial tensions in America -- it may be a dialogue that's becoming increasingly unavoidable.

"The reason this film is important for right now is that equality is something every generation has to define for itself," Nichols said. "Although Richard and Mildred don't provide all the answers, they show us how to talk about it. They do that by showing us the humanity at the center of these things."

Nichols' hope is that audiences leave "Loving" thinking about that couple -- their courage and decency -- which continues to inspire him four years after taking this project on.

"I think I am still kind of reeling from the experience, to be honest," he said.