Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race
As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.
What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).
The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving
Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.
Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?
It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.