Based on media reviews, I expected to love Loving, the docudrama about the celebrated Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, which effectively ended bans on cross-racial marriage across the United States. Unfortunately, I could only manage a “like” for this film.
Here’s the story: In 1958, Richard Loving (white) and Mildred Jeter (black), both residents of Caroline County, Virginia, married. The couple were arrested due to violation of the Racial Integrity Act (1924), a Virginia law which prohibited inter-racial marriage. In order to preserve their union, the Lovings were forced to leave the state of Virginia.
In 1964, Mildred Loving requested assistance from then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy regarding the situation, because she wanted to move her family back to Virginia. In response, Kennedy referred the case to the American Civil Liberties Union, which took the Loving’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1967, the Court found in favor of the Lovings, thus invalidating anti-miscegenation laws across the United States. The Lovings were then able to spend the remainder of their married life among their family and friends in Caroline County. (Sadly, Richard Loving was killed in a car accident about 10 years after the landmark court decision. His widow never re-married.)
Pluses of the film: Director Jeff Nichols spends a lot of time showing the demeaning effects of the Virginia Racial Integrity Act on the Lovings, especially on Mildred. She is the one who is initially denied the opportunity to post bail for release from jail, regardless of the fact that she is pregnant and physically stressed from the incarceration. When it’s obvious that the baby is about to come, the Lovings want Richard’s mother, a midwife, to assist with the birth. In order to accomplish this, Mildred has to be transported to the state line at night, then taken into Virginia by a relative, due to the fact that the law prohibits both Lovings from being in Virginia at the same time.
My frustration with the film primarily rests with what I see as a failure to set sufficient context at the beginning of the story. We see Richard interacting with Mildred and her friends and relatives; racing and fixing cars, and dancing during musical gatherings. At one point, Mildred discovers that she is pregnant. Richard almost casually mentions they need to go to Washington D.C. to get married. This would imply knowledge that there might be a problem getting married in Caroline County. One would think that a family member or friend might express concern for the Loving’s matrimonial plans. However, nobody says anything until the night that the Lovings are arrested.
I was also frustrated with how the Lovings were portrayed. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is played as constantly oppressed by her situation; we almost never see the bottom of her face, because she’s always looking down. Meanwhile, the actor portraying Richard (Joel Edgerton) emotes frustration and incomprehension through one expression throughout the entire picture: squinting while sticking his lower jaw forward. The classic redneck profile.
The movie made me curious enough to seek out existing documentaries on the subject. I found one called The Loving Story, initially broadcast on HBO in 2011. The film does an excellent job of investigating the multicultural makeup of Richard and Mildred’s social and family circle, thus explaining social acceptance of their marriage. And Richard and Mildred are shown to be three-dimensional people who are far more involved in the ACLU lawsuit than one would guess after seeing Loving.
In conclusion, I would strongly recommend that viewers watch both the full-length feature film and the 2011 documentary. Please include your kids. The two films together tell an amazing story about two ordinary people who persevered in gaining the right to conduct their lives like anyone else in this country. And if these films encourage one to consider the current precarious legal position of other groups wishing to retain the right of marriage…..so be it.
Loving is currently in theatres. You can purchase a DVD of The Loving Story from amazon.com using the following link:
You can also purchase or rent The Loving Story via amazon instant through the following link:
Plus: Film takes care to detail the degrading effects of the 1950’s anti-miscegenation laws.
Minus: Context of Lovings’ social milieu was not adequately described.
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon, Marton Csokas
Director: Jeff Nichols
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements)
Length: 123 minutes