USA Great Britain (122 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Jeff Nichols
An understated, restrained, and achingly sorrowful depiction of the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple that got married in Washington D.C. in 1958 only to be arrested after they returned home to Central Point, Virginia for violating the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia that had outlawed interracial marriage since slavery days. Actually, the first law banning all marriage between whites and blacks was enacted in the colony of Virginia in 1691. Though slavery was abolished in 1865, interracial marriage remained illegal in all the former states of the Confederacy 100 years later and was not amended until a Supreme Court decision on behalf of the Loving’s in 1967, though two states, South Carolina and Alabama refused to amend their state Constitutions until majority voter referendums passed in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Much like 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol from last year, this film underplays a significant shift in social consciousness by eliminating any hint of dramatic excess or melodrama, instead accentuating how connected they are to the rural soil and to one another, where whatever drama exists is the ordinary fabric of their everyday lives. Unlike the director’s previous work Midnight Special (2016) that featured the supernatural, this film thrives on a universal human characteristic that we all share in common, the capacity to love. Easily the least controversial and most conventional of all his films, the low key nature of the drama is surprising, especially considering the radical significance of the subject, where unfortunately films about social change have to be presented with kid gloves so as not to offend anyone. That excessive degree of restraint may be the film’s undoing. By focusing on establishing a rhythm of life that becomes ordinary and routine, where this couple could just as easily have been anyone, yet their nobility and inherent goodness rise above the prejudices of the time, while so much about them feels overly generic.
To say the least, it is highly unusual for a white man in the 1950’s to so completely embrace black culture with so few questions being asked. Yes, it does happen in the music business, especially with a lone white among jazz artists who are primarily black, and who’s to say it doesn’t happen elsewhere? Except for a single scene, where Richard is confronted by an inebriated black friend that reminds him whites always have an escape route from being black, an avenue blacks will never have, there is otherwise no discussion on the matter. It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t have been plenty more altercations among both races where they would be forced to defend their actions, where some among them would be disenchanted. Richard’s mother at one point says he never should have married “that” woman, but that’s the end of it. The film doesn’t delve into any of those kinds of all-too human frustrations, so it feels like the couple exists in a vacuum. As it turns out, when one examines the history of mixed-race descendants from Virginia (Loving v. Virginia and the Secret History of Race - The New York Times Brent Staples, May 14, 2008), it was common practice for Virginia slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, to father biracial children with their slaves, where “many of the mixed-race men and women of Caroline County settled in and around Central Point…it was a visibly mixed-race community since the 19th century, (and) was home to a secret but paradoxically open interracialism.” Leading up to the 1950’s, often indistinguishable from whites, many biracials passed as whites in schools, movie theaters, restaurants, and even the armed forces in order to avoid segregation laws. Some moved away and married into white families, while others had their birth certificates corrected to list them as white. So what the film doesn’t point out is by the time Richard Loving, who was white, met Mildred Jeter, who was black and Cherokee, at a rural farmhouse juke joint playing bluegrass music, violating Jim Crow laws in that county was already an established practice.
That being said, the film does contain the meticulous detail found in the director’s other films, including powerful performances by the lead characters Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), where these two are right at home in the rural farmlands and fields where they grew up, where neither one talks much, expressing themselves with as few words as possible, yet both are direct and sincere, where their feelings for one another are never in doubt. Richard is a bricklayer by trade, but a genius at fixing car engines, where his weekend hobby is hanging out with a group of blacks who fleece whites out of their money in local drag races. Some of the underlying white resentment is hinted at, both in losing their money and in watching a white guy so nonchalantly kissing a black woman in public, where someone holding a grudge against the couple likely complained to the sheriff, but nothing more becomes of it. The couple is quickly married after learning Mildred is pregnant, with Richard buying a plot of land not half-a-mile from where Mildred grew up where he intends to build her a house, but they are arrested by a local sheriff (Marton Csokas) and his men in the middle of the night for violating anti-miscegenation laws that forbid blacks and whites from living together in marriage. Accentuating the racial disparity of the law, Richard is released after a single night, while history records show Mildred spent five nights in a rat-infested cell before they allowed her release. On the advice of local attorney (Bill Camp), they can avoid jail time only by pleading guilty, but they will be banned from living in the state of Virginia for the next 25 years. With heads bowed, they agree to the court’s draconian rules, moving to Washington, D.C. into the home of one of Mildred’s cousins, Laura (Andrene Ward-Hammond), a row house in an all-black part of the city, where both are keenly aware that they’re living in substandard housing in a neglected neighborhood. As the Civil Rights movement is growing, including the infamous 1963 march on Washington, the site of Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech, it’s Laura who tells Mildred, “You need to write Bobby Kennedy and get you some civil rights.”
Uncomfortable in the city, where she misses her family, especially how close she is with her sister (Terri Abney), eventually having three kids, Mildred feels they’re cramped and cooped up all the time, as they have no room to run around and play, so she does write a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who refers the case to the Washington branch of the ACLU, where she’s contacted by Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) and constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), who agree to represent them free of charge. What’s difficult for them to understand is how they have to lose all the lower court rulings in order for the case to be heard before the Supreme Court, a process that takes nearly a decade, where they grow weary and disheartened along the way, where Richard often has to drive up to another state to find work, often returning home long after the kids have gone to bed. Richard is openly suspicious of the lawyers, not really understanding the process, while Mildred develops an appreciation for the fact that you have to lose the smaller battles in order to win the war. As the case draws nearer the federal courts, the lawyers try to gain exposure for the case by sending a Life magazine photographer to visit them in 1965, with Michael Shannon playing the photographer Grey Villet, known for using natural light and for refusing to stage his subjects, and while only three photographs were published in the magazine, he took more than 70 photographs. Much of the film’s narrative mirrors those historic photographs which were shown in Nancy Buirski’s documentary film THE LOVING STORY (2011). Photography played a large part of the Civil Rights struggle, communicating a sense of urgency to people all around the world, much of it displaying a hostile reception by police and local bystanders greeting the peaceful protest demonstrations, depicting violence and hate, while the images of the Loving family show precisely the opposite. As low key and unobtrusive as this soft-spoken family chose to be, it’s hard to understand how the State of Virginia could actually claim they threatened “the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Never seeing themselves as champions of civil rights, instead coming from humble origins, they don’t even attend the Supreme Court hearing when invited, where the muted style of the film does allow viewers to share moments of intimacy with this family, as if we are part of their world, allowing us to observe history as it happens.