By Pamela Zoslov
“Tell the judge I love my wife.” That was the plain request of Richard Loving, a white man, to the lawyer who was about to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 for Loving’s right to be married to his wife Mildred, a black woman, in 1967.
Loving’s simple words are the essence of the case, which would become a landmark civil rights decision, Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated state laws against miscegenation (mixed marriages between whites and blacks), laws that were a legacy of slavery and persisted, shamefully, into the 1960s (and even beyond in some states). The story of the Lovings, and their case, is told in Loving, the lovely drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols.
The Lovings, Richard and Mildred, never set out to become civil rights icons. Having married in nearby Washington, D.C., where interracial marriages were legal, they returned to their home in remote rural Caroline County, Virginia, north of Richmond.
The community they grew up in was warm and racially tolerant; the families all knew each other and no one was much bothered by “race mixing.” Richard, a bricklayer, and Mildred Jeter, a soft-spoken, poised woman of black and Native American descent, were childhood friends and neighbors. They grew closer as adults participating in local drag races — Richard was a local racing legend. Physically, they looked like an unlikely couple, the stocky, crewcut Richard, the very image of, in their lawyer’s words, “a redneck,” and Mildred, the pert, elegant young woman nicknamed “string bean” by her family. But they were deeply in love. A famous photo of the Lovings in Life magazine shows the couple watching television on their couch, Richard’s head resting in his wife’s lap.
When they began their married life and had their children (all three delivered by Richard’s mother, a midwife), they were unaware of a Virginia statute making it a felony for a white and “colored” person to marry elsewhere and live as man and wife in Virginia. Police burst into their home in the middle of the night, rousting the sleeping couple from their bed and jailing them. They were found guilty by a local judge and sentenced to a year in jail, which the judge suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return for 25 years. (Alternatively, the could “dissolve” the marriage.)
Reluctantly, they moved to Washington, D.C., where they tried to adapt to urban life, occasionally sneaking back to Virginia to visit their families. They lived in unhappy exile in the city for five years before the longing for the green grass of home drew them back to Virginia. Authorities re-arrested them, and Mildred, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred the couple to the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers saw in the Lovings’ case a perfect opportunity to challenge anti-miscegenation laws in federal court.
Writer-director Nichols was inspired to make this film by Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story, which employed copious film and photographic footage of the Lovings, their families, friends, attorneys, and law enforcement and judicial nemeses. Basing his film on the documentary, Nichols has approached the story with taste and exquisite restraint. Every detail of casting, dialogue, photography and design, honors the actual people and events. This is remarkable, given that the subject — Southern racism — can lend itself to exaggerated portrayals. The events in Loving actually happened in real life; Nichols felt no need to embellish.
The casting of Joel Edgerton as Richard is exemplary of this verisimilitude. The Australian actor seems not so much to play Richard Loving as to be him. His performance reminds me of a story Jack Lemmon used to tell about being directed by Billy Wilder. After every take of a particular scene, Wilder told Lemmon “Less!” Finally Lemmon, exasperated, threw up his hands and asked, “Do you want me to not act?” Wilder begged: “Please!” Edgerton’s performance is the essence of apparent “not acting,” a rare and sublime thing. Ruth Negga is also persuasive as the gentle, quietly determined Mildred.
The movie paints Caroline County as a an amber-lit, agrarian Eden, its racially mixed inhabitants occupying themselves with farming, housebuilding, raising children, fixing cars, playing music and dancing at the Shotgun Shack and racing cars. Richard helps out as his mother, Lola (Sharon Blackman) delivers babies. Race isn’t on their minds; Richard’s closest male friends are African-American.Of his home county, Richard said in a 1967 Life magazine story, “Folks here just want to live and be left alone.”
Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant, and he begins preparing to marry her. He takes her to see an acre of land he has just bought. “I’m gonna build you a house,” he promises. “Our house.” The importance of home is one of the story’s main themes. Richard and Mildred could have lived as a married couple in another state,, but they had a visceral need to be home with their extended families, close to the soil and to their roots. Buirski’s documentary underscored this, using as its musical motif the “Goin’ Home” theme in Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony.
Richard and Mildred’s families are accepting, if slightly apprehensive about their marriage plans, and the couple, with Mildred’s father in tow, drive to Washington for their wedding — “less red tape up there,” according to Richard.
The sheriff learns of their marriage and sends his deputies on the middle-of-the-night house raid. Mildred and Richard are kept in separate jail cells. Richard is bailed out, but is forbidden to bail out his wife. Mildred, pregnant and terrified, spends the weekend cowering in an awful jail cell before her dad can raise bail.
It does not help when Richard shows the sheriff his marriage license, which he keeps proudly in a frame on the couple’s bedroom wall. “That’s no good here,” says Sheriff Brooks (Martin Csokas), who dismisses Richard as an ignorant hillbilly. “If your dumb country ass hadn’t gone and married her….” It would have been all right,l under Virginia law, for Richard and Mildred to cohabitate, but not to have the effrontery to marry. “It’s God’s will,” the sheriff asserts. “Sparrow to sparrow, robin to robin. We’re different for a reason.”
The judge, the now infamous Leon Bazile, uses the same God-based reasoning in his judgment against the Lovings, calling their act “a most serious crime.”
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his [arrangement] there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
(It appears Bazile had his own “mixed marriage” problem forty years earlier, having been nearly prevented from marrying the woman he loved because he was a Roman Catholic and she was a Baptist.)
Bazile’s racist opinion provides a “roadmap” for the ACLU lawyers to get the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. After overcoming statute of limitations issues and getting the judgment against the Lovings affirmed in federal court, the legal team is thrilled when the Supreme Court grants certiorari (agrees to hear the case). The ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkopf (Jon Bass), nervously prepare to argue the momentous case. Cohen, only a few years out of law school, has no constitutional law experience. He’s so new he borrows a friend’s office in Washington to meet with the Lovings, cannily replacing the friend’s desk nameplate with his own.
The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on the legal details but conveys the basis of the Lovings’ argument: that Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The state’s lawyer argued, disingenuously, that mixed marriages are harmful to children of those marriages.
The decision, with a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, was 9-0 in favor of the Lovings, and invalidated similar statutes in other states. (Many remained on the books, though Loving made them unenforceable; Alabama, in 2000, became the last state to change its laws.) The Loving decision was cited in Obergefell v Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
The decision changed a lot of lives, but that was not why the Lovings pursued the case. Said Richard Loving in that Life story, “We have thought about other people, but we are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we want to be the ones.
“We are doing it for us — because we want to live here.” Grade: A+
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