I taught American history for many years. I enjoy traveling to historic sites. We recently went to Deerfield MA and Roanoke Island and have been considering trips to Plymouth and Williamsburg. I enjoy reading history and watching historical documentaries or historical fiction. It’s particularly rewarding when the experience introduces me to some “new,” for me at least, history.
This week Netflix shipped “Loving” (2016) written and directed by Jeff Nichols. The story sounded promising. An inter-racial marriage in Virginia in the 1950s leads to a Supreme Court case that bans laws against miscegenation. I watched about 30 minutes but wasn’t impressed; it seemed too slow, not much happening. Richard Loving, a crew cut, laconic, brick layer, didn’t excite. Mildred, his girlfriend, wife was pretty, and pretty quiet.
How wrong I was. For director Nichols, this was the point. Here was an ordinary couple who crossed the black white divide and only wanted to marry, make a home and raise a family. Since VA law did not allow them to marry, they went to Washington, D.C., it was 1958. There was no crusade; just a “loving” couple wanting a life together. Laws in VA and 24 other states made it illegal.
They are arrested one night by a local sheriff. The D.C. marriage certificate meant nothing nothing in the Commonwealth. “To jail” said the judge or leave the state for 25 years. They reluctantly chose the latter. Mildred is particularly upset. She is a country, family girl; DC doesn’t work for her. In 1963 she writes Attorney General, Robert Kennedy about her situation. He refers her case the to ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).
The Civil Rights campaign begins but Richard and Mildred are just looking to live at home (Central Point, VA), together, and to raise their family (now 3 children). Into the film, I’ve begun to understand director Nichols dynamic. Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a pretty basic guy, a mason, likes a beer, working on cars, drag racing, hanging out with friends (many black), and “loving his family.” Mildred (Ruth Negga) is devoted to family and Richard but sees that publicity (Life magazine, local media, national news) may eventually help them and yes, others (her performance was nominated for an academy award). These are simple folk, not interested it changing the law, or making history.
The ACLU leading the charge moves the Loving case to the Supreme Court. Mildred and Richard have no interest in gong to the court. Richard tells the lawyers, “Tell the Judge I love my life.” In 1967, Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia, the court said the VA law against inter-racial marriage, “had no purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination.” The VA law and others were unconstitutional.
I am so glad I didn’t quick judge “Loving.” It’s a very good movie, subtle, honest, true to history. I always enjoy learning about new (for me) pages, maybe chapters in American history. I’d never heard of the “Loving” family contribution. Since I don’t teach anymore, I share the story with you.