Abolishing Miscegenation: Virginia is for Lovings
Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ feature film Loving is about a real life Virginia couple whose interracial marriage set the stage for the Supreme Court’s historic 1967 ruling against laws prohibiting miscegenation in America. Believe it or not, the last name of husband Richard (Joel Edgerton, 2013’s The Great Gatsby) and wife Mildred (Ruth Negga, 2013’s World War Z) was actually, Loving – as the cliché goes, you can’t make this stuff up.
Other filmmakers might have played up the courtroom angle like, say, in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 Inherit the Wind; or dramatized the Lovings’ ordeal as a struggle against Southern bigotry, as in Norman Jewison’s 1967 In the Heat of the Night; or politicized their troubles as part of the Civil Rights movement with lots of righteous speechifying, as Ava DuVernay did in 2014’s Selma. Nichols, however, opts for a different approach.
In terms of style, Loving’s cadence and mood is close to the sensibility of Italian Neo-Realism, although I hasten to add that the roles are played by trained, professional actors, not by amateurs, as in those postwar classics made by Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Cesare Zavattini, et al, in the 1940s/’50s. The very naturalistic Loving unspools slowly at a deliberate pace that may vex fidgety multiplex popcorn munchers used to more action-packed, fast-moving fare. While this measured tempo and the avoidance of overt onscreen confrontations may bore the bejesus out of many ticket buyers, the fact is that it all does have a cumulative effect that pays off, although without in-your-face triumphalism.
Viewers may also be puzzled by the depiction of Virginia in 1958. Although American apartheid ruled the South during this period, Richard crosses the color line with impunity, a white man freely mingling with Blacks. Richards Nichols never bothers to provide any back story explaining why Richard wasn’t racist and how, in their social milieu, racial mixing was accepted (or at least not persecuted – that is, until the iron heel of the state stepped in). Of course, if Richard Loving had been African American and Mildred a Caucasian, the whole story may have been different (but this is a bit like saying if my aunt had testicles she’d be my uncle).
As Edgerton depicts Richard, he seems to be an uneducated, lower class white man who may not have book smarts but is quite clever at using his hands, whether with car motors or the building trades. Some may perceive him as being a dimwit, too “retarded” to understand the inherent “superiority” of whitey, as the pro-segregation Judge Bazile (David Jensen) and Sheriff Brooks (New Zealander Marton Csokas) assert. (Brooks is in the long line of prejudiced Southern screen lawmen descended from that archetypal despotic Dixie-crat law enforcer, Bull Connors, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, who shot water hoses at and unleashed dogs on children and other peaceful demonstrators for equal rights.)
Although to those living north of the Mason-Dixon Line Richard may appear to be a stereotypical “redneck” or “cracker,” he does not neatly fit into these categories. According to Loving, it is not political consciousness that prompts his marrying a Black woman, but rather, well, loving. Richard is endowed with a baked in sense of decency, a devoted husband and family man dedicated to Mildred and their three children. When his attorney asks Richard what he wants the U.S. Supreme Court to know, Richard says simply with heartfelt conviction: “I love my wife.”
Mildred, who as a Black woman has suffered the slings and arrows of Jim Crow’s outrageous misfortune way down yonder in the land of cotton, is a bit more socially aware. She watches on television and marvels at Dr. King’s March on Washington and [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which results in legal representation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Whereas Richard’s essential, instinctual goodness enables him to rise above racism, the Lovings’ lawyer is motivated by a mission for social justice and equality (and, perhaps, by an opportunity to make his mark in the legal landscape and a name for himself). The courtroom gladiator is, but of course, a Jew born in Brooklyn and naturally he’s named Bernie – Cohen, that is, not Sanders. Nick Kroll does an amusing job as the lawyer who, with a twinkle in his eye, helped to destroy that pillar of American apartheid: State laws banning interracial marriage. In 2007, in remembering the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia victory in the Supreme Court, Bernie co-wrote a HuffPost blog championing the right to same sex marriage – an issue that might be the subtext for Loving.
Loving goes out of its way to downplay the role politics played in the story of Richard and Mildred. They are portrayed as just being simple folk who merely want to be left alone to live their lives as they deem fit. But the fact of the matter is that entrenched, powerful political forces are often arrayed not merely against individuals, but masses of people, too. Mildred does grasp this as she tells interviewers that her case will also help many others, who are also being persecuted by miscegenist laws.
And it is she, of course, who wrote to Bobby Kennedy, who at his best – that is, when he wasn’t part of Senator Joe McCarthy’s committee, plotting to whack Fidel or purportedly pimping Marilyn Monroe – personified the wraith of liberal conscience. Without the ACLU, as well as some key media coverage, the Lovings may never have been allowed to simply live together as husband and wife in Virginia. Conservatives often bray about “individual liberty” and “Constitutional rights,” but often they are the very power brokers imposing themselves on others, taking it upon themselves to restrict what they can and cannot do, when it’s really none of their fucking business.
Loving is part of the cinematic surge of Black-themed films. Negga’s face and her acting is so expressive that she seems a sure bet for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Although this would serve to counter the “Oscars so white” controversy, it should be noted that while Negga is African, she’s not American. In the post-screening Q&A with writer/ director Nichols, he pointed out that Negga was born in Addis Ababa and grew up in Ireland. Her father was Ethiopian, her mother Irish, and Negga moved to Limerick when she was four. So once again, an important African American historical character is portrayed by a Black thesp from abroad – an eyebrow-raising trend that similarly led some to wonder: If President Obama’s African roots had been planted in America centuries ago, instead of being the son of a Kenyan exchange student, would U.S. white voters have cast their ballots for him?
Be that as it may, acting is in good measure a form of make believe and pretending and Negga is just exquisite as Mildred. She makes you believe that a man would forsake his “white skin privilege” to be married to her. Like Negga, Edgerton’s character has sparse dialogue, and his internal acting, with facial expressions, gestures, etc., may also lead to an Oscar nom.
Nichols noted that Edgerton is Australian and speaks with an Aussie accent, which was transformed into a more authentic speech pattern in order to convincingly play a Virginian. Nichols spoke at a Nov. 4 post-screening as part of the ArcLight Presents… Best Of The Best series. Following the 123 minute film, a moderator interviewed Nichols at the front of ArcLight Hollywood’s Theater 3, then the audience got into the act, asking questions.
One of the points Nichols made during the Q&A was that Michael Shannon has been in all of his features, such as 2011’s gripping Take Shelter, about a man obsessed with providing his family with safe haven. In Loving Shannon has a brief but pivotal role, portraying Grey Villet, the photographer who shot a spread about the Lovings for Life Magazine. A picture of Richard lying down on a couch, his head in Mildred’s lap, laughing as they watched The Andy Griffith Show (ironically, a program about a Southern policeman), helped persuade America that the Lovings’ union and their offspring deserved equal rights – as do same sex couple’s and their children today.
Here’s the Fun Facts of the review: The same year the Lovings prevailed in the Supreme Court striking down prohibitions against interracial marriage, Stanley Kramer’s picture about that same topic was released, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The 1967 movie co-starred, of course, Sidney Poitier – and the Lovings’ firstborn was likewise named Sidney.