Loving: An American Love Story
Richard and Mildred Loving were convicted for violating Jim Crow laws prohibiting interracial marriage in their home state of Virginia. Richard was Caucasian and Mildred was half African American and half Cherokee Indian. They were arrested, plead guilty for their “crime,” and accepted their punishment, which restricted them from setting foot in the state at the same time for a period of 25 years. Violation of this ordinance would immediately land them in prison. With John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, the 1963 March on Washington lead by Martin Luther King Jr., the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing where four young African American girls were murdered, and finally the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it seemed as if the country was already on the precipice of radical change.
After 3 children and 5 years of exile in D.C., Mildred wrote to the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy regarding the couples’ civil rights. The Lovings’ were simple country folk who felt like fish-out-of-water in the big city so far from the home they knew and loved. They packed up their family and moved back to Center Point,Virginia in secret. Around that same time, RFK made the American Civil Liberties Union aware of their case. Bernard Cohen and Phillip Hirschkop were the defense attorneys assigned to the case who ultimately took it all the way to the Supreme Court.
With states rights at the center of their argument, Virginia asserted that historically marriage laws didn’t fall under federal jurisdiction, rather they were determined by individual state legislative bodies. They also argued more insidiously that mixed race children were illegitimate—unable to be accepted or claimed by either the African American or Caucasian communities. In a 2013 interview Phillip Hirschkop gave Take Two’s A. Martinez, he describes the couple as “not want[ing] to be in the public spot light. They just wanted to raise their children and live near their families and get on with life.” Finally, in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional, declaring marriage a fundamental right not subject to racial prejudice.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Loving. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud & Midnight Special) the Arkansas born filmmaker was inspired by Nancy Buirski’s 2011 HBO documentary The Loving Story. The documentary is heavily focused on the court case itself—relying on the audio clips and archival footage that made history. In a recent interview with John Horn, host of KPCC’s The Frame, Nichols said, “it started me down this path…if the court case is happening over here what were the Lovings’ doing?” With the blessing of the Lovings’ only surviving daughter Peggie, Nichols proceeded to tell the love story behind the historical court case. The movie highlights the private, not the public—the “how” not “the what” of it. It’s the collection of the mundane occurrences that set the whole ball into motion.
Joel Edgerton gives a masterful performance as Richard portraying a kind, soft-spoken shy brick layer no stranger to hard work. He is perfectly balanced by Ruth Negga’s demur and dignified embodiment of Mildred. Like a blooming flower we watch the story slowly unfold, the tension building with each furrowed brow or acquiescing wet eye. Subtle glances between the two actors replace pages of dialogue. A tenor of decorum indicative of the historical time and place is present in the delivery of every line and every emotional situation these two characters find themselves in. These were real people whose eyes told more than their words every would. Edgerton and Negga nail that subtext with remarkable accuracy.
Beautiful cinematography establishing wide shots of the Virginia countryside rich with green fields is juxtaposed to the D.C. streets littered with trash—their access to acres of land relinquished for patches of pavement. Even the familiar sound of crickets chorusing at night is exchanged for the incessant honking of car horns and pedestrian sound-pollution so germane to city dwelling. All of these elements coalesce in an effort to further the story’s undertones—communicating so much with so little. The inner life of the characters, the height of the stakes they face and the toll these untenable circumstances take on them, gradually progresses. The audience gets to see each of those seeds of justified resentment grow as the couple endure road block after road block until there is nothing left for them to do but take action. In the film Mildred aptly says “we may loose the small battles to win the war.”
At one point during Nichols's interview with John Horn, he’s asked to reflect on some common themes that he explores in his films. As a southerner who graduated from The North Carolina School of the Arts he said,
As some one who is one half of an interracial couple, I feel personally indebted to the Lovings’. If it hadn’t been for their quiet persistence and their remarkable ability to endure, none of us who’ve found love beyond the confines of race would have the legal right to pursue it. Mixed marriage laws go all the way back to the beginning of slavery and the need to preserve the caste system—the maintaining of “law and order.” However, challenging the status quo is the hallmark of human progress.
That being said, my gratitude goes a step further. Citing the same arguments that established the unconstitutionality of prohibiting marriage based on race in the Lovings’ case 46 years prior, the U.S. Supreme court was compelled to extend that protection to same-sex marriages in 2013. In his Take Two interview, Phillip Hirschkop draws parallels between the arguments founded in slavery laws against interracial marriage and the arguments founded in biblical puritanical doctrine against same-sex marriage, asserting that “both are born from blind prejudice of people based on historical development.” The Lovings’—reluctant crusaders fueled by their love for one another became the inarguable defense against hatred and oppression. Again the separation of church and state; inalienable rights, and the pursuit of happiness defined by the individual, not the collective, was upheld proving that the most powerful currency we have in this world is love. I couldn’t agree more with Nichols when he said, “If you can show people the humanity at the center of these debates, I think it’s the only way we can progress through them.”
As I think about what historically is at stake in tomorrow’s election, I think about the Lovings’. I think about what the election cycle has revealed about us as a nation and the way history seems to be repeating itself. I think about the courage of the Lovings’—their defiance of social norms and their unwavering commitment to each other in the face of prison, physical harm, and separation from their families. Their metal—what they were made of, was tested time and time again, for years—and all in the name of integrity, principle and what was ultimately right. Whatever the party affiliation, casting a vote tomorrow—participating in our democracy is a privilege and a duty afforded to us by people like the Lovings’. For all of the problems our country faces, for all of the things that are wrong that we need to work together to fix, the Lovings’ represent what it looks like when our system gets it right. For me, that’s the payoff of this film—that’s the inspiration for exercising my right to vote.