Review of a Historical Film: Loving (2016)
LOVING (2016). Directed by Jeff Nichols; Produced by Big Beach and Raindog Films
LOVING tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple involved in the historic 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case (the case that decriminalized interracial marriage). I accessed the film on Netflix.
The major theme in LOVING is that bans on interracial marriage were wrong and misguided and that ordinary people can find themselves as important historical actors even when they do not go seeking to play such a role. The film LOVING is largely historically accurate. it hews closely to the actual story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple who married in rural Virginia in 1957, and who were arrested shortly after their marriage and ordered by a judge to leave the state for 25 years or face a jail sentence. The film captures the unusual nature of Central Point, the area where both Mildred and Richard grew up. Central Point was a multiracial area with a long history of racial mixing between people of African descent, Native Americans, and Europeans. A white police office in the movie communicates the unusual nature of this place when he tells Richard Loving that people in Central Point “don’t know what’s right” because it’s all mixed-up with folks of Cherokee, Rapahonnock, Black and white backgrounds (indeed, Mildred Loving herself was of mixed Black and indigenous ancestry and didn’t define herself as Black, although the movie doesn’t tell us that). But the film does make clear that this area is different from the rest of Virginia and that Richard and Mildred’s relationship was accepted there–Richard is shown hanging out with Mildred’s family and racing cars with her brothers. True to the historical record, it was Richard who assimilated into a community of color when he married Mildred rather than Mildred entering a white community. The film accurately tracks their move to DC, Mildred’s dislike of the city and desire to return to her family in Virginia, and the court battle that eventually leads to the Supreme Court.
There are small inaccuracies–Mildred already had a child when she married Richard, but the film shows her having her first baby months after the two wed; the film shows Mildred stuck in jail for a weekend when Richard is able to get out quickly after their arrest. In truth, she was stuck in jail nearly a month. But the film gets right the basic story and certainly captures the spirit of the Lovings, who did not see themselves as civil rights crusaders, did not like publicity, and who simply wanted to live normal, everyday lives.
The film makes a historical argument in choosing to tell its story as a very small and personal one. It is a quiet film, tightly focused on the central couple and it offers very little broader historical context. A viewer who did not know the history of anti-miscegenation laws in America would not learn much of it here. The film does not convey how widespread these laws were, how long they lasted, or why they were the last segregation laws to fall. We hear two short speeches (some quoted verbatim from court documents) from opponents of interracial marriage describing it as unnatural and against God’s law, but there isn’t much (or any effort) to explain how these laws reflected and were part of a larger racial system. Nor is there much sense of why the Supreme Court might finally overturn miscegenation laws (which had been around for three hundred years by this point) in 1967. The film incudes one brief reference to the March on Washington, but otherwise ignores the civil rights struggle that was taking place throughout the South. This may well reflect the perspectives of the Lovings themselves, who saw their legal struggle primarily in personal terms, but it doesn’t leave much room to contextualize their fight for the right to marry.
Key Moment 1 is a short scene that runs from 1:23:41 to 1:24:44. By this point in the movie, the Lovings have moved back to Virginia while their case is making its way through the courts. In the previous scene, Richard (who works as a bricklayer with an all-white construction crew) had found a brick in the back seat of his car with an article about their court case tied around it, a sign of the disapproval of the larger community (and a portent of possible violence against him and his family). The scene I’ve chosen begins at the Loving’s isolated rural home with Richard up high on a ladder outside the house working on repairs. The camera takes a long shot and we see a blue car driving rapidly towards the house from a distance. Tense music begins to play. An anxious Richard, fearing violence, quickly makes his way down the ladder and yells at his small daughter to get into the house. When the car pulls up, it turns out to be Mildred’s brother. Richard asks him why he was driving so fast, clearly communicating the kind of state of constant anxiety and tension that he felt as part of an interracial family. Richard throughout the movie says little (in real life he was a man of few words), but the scene very effectively conveys his love for his family, his deep concern for their security, and his anxiety that they might be harassed or even killed.
Key Moment Two is a montage that runs from 1:48:52 to 1:51:18. This is the seminal courtroom scene where the Loving case is being argued before the Supreme Court by two lawyers from the ACLU. It is also the scene that most clearly lays out this film’s argument. The scene briefly shows the two nervous young lawyers making their oral arguments (with the script quoting directly from the trial transcript). But as they talk, we hear soft string music in the background and the film jumps to domestic scenes of the Lovings at home in Virginia (as in real life, Mildred and Richard Loving had chosen not to attend the Supreme Court hearing in Washington, DC). While we hear the two lawyers (with the music in the background) asking the question: “What is the danger to the state of Virginia of interracial marriage?” we see Mildred Loving sewing, Richard Loving mowing the lawn, their three kids playing on a rope swing, a family dinner, and the Lovings putting their kids to bed. Here the argument is clear: the Lovings are a happy, ordinary, healthy family (indeed, we see very little conflict between them in this film at all) and they pose absolutely no threat to Virginia or the nation.
Teaching and Learning:
I would use this film in classes I teach on Race and Sexuality in US History and on historical memory. I don’t think I would use this in a class on civil rights history because it offers so little coverage of the larger movement that was going on at the time of this legal battle. I would introduce the film by asking students to consider not just the story but how the film chooses to tell the story, to pay attention to which characters it focuses on, and to consider how it presents the debate about interracial marriage. It would make a great assignment to pair this with the 1967 film, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, which came out the year the Loving rule was handed down but which focuses explicitly on the opposition an interracial couple faces from both sets of parents and which makes a very different kind of political argument.