Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud”), is based on Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. (The archaic term “miscegenation” was used in those days.) Much of the United States had anti-miscegenation laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court struck down those statutes.
Loving opens as a tender romance between Richard Loving a white construction worker and tinkerer in car mechanics (the relative newcomer Joel Edgerton, a Golden Globe nominee), and a shy black and American Indian woman named Mildred (Academy Award-nominated Ruth Negga who gives a startlingly nuanced performance). Loving starts out revealing that Richard and Mildred’s parents fear repercussions for their illicit love. Their fears were well founded. The Lovings were arrested, jailed and convicted. Ordered to never set foot in Virginia again, Richard and Mildred are exiled from their families. But neither family ever abandons their exceptional support for Richard and Mildred.
There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. Yet “God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe, thereby never intending for them to mix.” This was one legal argument asserted in 1958 by the Virginia state court resulting in Richard and Mildred Loving’s lives (and eventually that of their three children) becoming a living hell.
Given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from Virginia, the Lovings first move to D.C. where there were no laws forbidding interracial marriage. But Mildred, now pregnant, misses the quiet country lifestyle as well as her parents and siblings. She wants her mother to be there for the birth of their first child. They sneak back into Virginia, and are arrested.
This very private, unassuming couple are about the least likely people to become the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history. Such ordinariness magnifies the movie’s emotional impact. We’re invested in them as simple people who just want to be left alone to build their home and raise their family. Their lives would no longer be their own, transformed into sensationalistic magazine cover stories.
For five long years Mildred considers filing a lawsuit. Richard is reluctant and unconvinced, accepting the government’s exile as their fate. In contrast, this timid woman fights the injustice of their situation, forced to engage in extraordinary acts. Everyone else underestimates her tenacity, her belief in their love and respect for each other.
Inspired by the burgeoning civil rights movement, Mildred writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who recommends the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) . Lawyer Bernard S. Cohen , an inexperienced young ACLU attorney (played by the surprisingly versatile Nick Kroll), sees the opportunity to overturn the ban against interracial marriage nationally. Cohen accepts the case under the guidance of constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop.
After years of losses and appeals, the Lovings have their day in court and their hard-won victory.
Loving is not about star power. It is about great acting. The couple’s name underscores the morality of a marriage viewed as threatening to others, Shakespearean no less than “Romeo and Juliet”. Nonetheless, the couple’s family name serves as a form of shorthand and double-meaning for the heart of this moving and memorable film.
The film’s noticeable weakness is in not supplying more legal and historical context for the Loving case. Loving is about hope, hope in the power of the individual –in this case, the least revolutionary type–to change the fabric of the nation. Sometimes a revolution starts very quietly, not with a bang.
Note: This is the 50th year anniversary of Loving v Virginia. A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 94 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. Today 16% of white Americans disapprove.
Bernie Cohen, authored a 2007 the Huffington Post entry in support of same-sex marriage, citing Loving v. Virginia.