I just got done with the film Loving. I had been meaning to see it when it came out three years ago, but I never got around to it. Fortunately, last weekend I went on a binge with movie rentals from the library, and Loving was on the shelves, so I picked it up.
I am so incredibly glad I saw this film, because honestly I can’t really remember if I ever really studied it in my U.S. history classes in school, or even my Africana Studies courses in college. We often learn about Brown vs. Board of Education and Plessy vs. Ferguson, but until Loving came out, this was my first time hearing about the ruling. Loving vs Virginia (1967) ruled that people couldn’t discriminate against interracial couples, and in June (the same month as LGBT Pride Month) Loving Day is recognized for transforming the way society viewed marriage equality.
The film Loving is based on the true story of Richard, a white man, and his black-Native American wife Mildred, who live in a rural community of Virginia called Central Point and are expecting their first child. They get married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., and begin raising their family; Richard is also planning the house he is building for him and Mildred. They live their normal lives as an average couple, until one night police officers brutally arrest them and lock them up in jail for living with each other. This takes an emotional toll on the couple, and when they are finally let free, they are told that they can either divorce or leave the state of Virginia. They decide to leave for a new life in Washington, D.C. Mildred goes into labor and tells Richard he wants his mother back in Central Point to deliver the baby. When they go back, he returns to the same comments from both white and black people in the community: that he got Mildred in trouble simply for marrying her at a time when the Racial Integrity Act made it illegal for any person of color to marry a white person. Nevertheless, his mom helps Mildred deliver the baby, but then the couple gets arrested yet again and are released a second and final time after the lawyer tells the judge he told them they could return to Virginia even after they were told before that they couldn’t come back to Virginia. Frustrated with the wider problem of systemic racism and inspired by watching the Civil Rights movement in D.C., Mildred writes to John F. Kennedy about the discrimination she and Richard faced. John F. Kennedy refers her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and lawyers Bernard Cohen and Phil Hirschkop help them get their case to the Supreme Court. At first, Richard doesn’t agree with Mildred that they should make their case public, but after seeing how much happier his wife is, he decides that it is all for the best and supports the case going to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, seven years after the case won, Richard was killed by a drunk driver, and his wife continued to live in the house Richard built for her until her death in 2008.
What really captivated me most about this film was its use of silence and lack of dialogue. I had to learn more about the film after watching it simply because unlike many films about Supreme Court cases where someone is running around, there is a lot of dialogue and debate, and at least one person has to be the loudest in the room, Loving shows that even the most introverted people can speak the loudest through their deeds behind the scenes. Colin Firth (yes, the Colin Firth. I squealed when I saw him listed as one of the producers of the film!) said that what makes this film about racism so unique is that this film doesn’t feature a lot of violence, explosions or high stakes Jim Crow racism, but instead uses the long periods of non-verbal expression to build a “slow-burning menace” throughout the film. And don’t get me wrong; I love dialogue in films, and during the Civil Rights movement, silence was never going to protect you in the long run if you were a black person during that rough time. But Jeff Nichols specifically wanted to make this film about the impact of the case on Richard and Mildred’s lives instead of depicting the entirety of the ruling. Indeed, I think it was much more effective to focus on their marriage rather than witnessing a mostly-white jury talk about their marriage, and also to make use of the silences rather than fill them with dialogue. Otherwise, it would have been like any movie with a huge court case scene. We don’t really get to gain insight into the individuals’ thought processes because the court is speaking for them, so I really like how Jeff wanted to focus on the marriage of Richard and Mildred so that we could appreciate these precious moments of quiet intimacy between them. Richard and Mildred speak a language of their own through their facial expressions, their kisses, their embraces, and even though they don’t show the actual court ruling going down, we see how even these scenes just between Richard and Mildred, and the moments with their kids, cannot be separated from its political and social context.
As a quiet person who has a passion to fight for climate change, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights, seeing this film taught me that even if you are shy and/or introverted, you can still shake the world, like Gandhi said. Mildred and Richard were in real life quiet people, and Jeff wanted to truly depict what life was like for these two individuals, so he cast actors who both looked like the people involved in the case and who could also embody these people and stay true to their stories. I really was hoping Ruth would win an Oscar for her role in this film because she speaks volumes through her worn, quiet expression throughout the film. When we see Joel play Richard, we get a profound sense of how hard his feelings are to describe in words. His expression is one of constant thought, and as Nick Kroll, who plays Bernie, noted that he had more lines than Richard even though he isn’t the main person in the forefront of the story. This is actually one of the few films I have seen that actually pays tribute to the introverts who made a difference in the Civil Rights struggle. We hear about Rosa Parks, but that’s really about it. We need to hear more about those people in the movement who weren’t always in the demonstrations, who were in their rural communities just living their lives. Richard and Mildred did a lot for the Civil Rights movement simply by living their lives as a married couple at a time when racial integration was still seen as taboo. And they weren’t super extroverted people. Even writing to the president or your Congress representatives can make a huge difference (especially nowadays, in a world that’s just going to keep becoming more technologically advanced day by day), and when Mildred first initiated the conversation with President Kennedy, it led to more opportunities for the couple to have their voices heard.
The music score also really works well with the film’s effective use of non-verbal communication. The strings play drone notes for the most part, and it reminded me of the film score for Arrival, the theme of which are just a few long notes played over and over again, but getting louder each time. The film is about a female researcher who is trying to cope with the death of her daughter and communicates with extraterrestrials that seem threatening to humankind, and it’s really a film about how we need to have face to face dialogue so that people can develop trust in one another. The music for Arrival is somber and goes along well with the film’s overall serious thought-provoking subject matter. Similarly, the use of largo (when a piece is played slow and long) for the score in Loving expresses the deep thought the film puts you in. This film makes you think, especially because the silences throughout the film allow for such deep thought. The music also didn’t play much during many of the dialogues, similar to A Ghost Story, which didn’t need a big orchestral film score because it was a story about reflecting on the loss of a loved one, so viewers needed that silent space to just have that time to reflect.
One scene that really stuck with me is when Richard comes home after drinking with his buddies. Richard is the only white person sitting with his friends, who are all black. While drunk, one of the guys jokes that Richard thinks he’s black just because he hangs with black people all the time, and that he should divorce Mildred so that they won’t get followed everywhere anymore. But then Richard comes home and quietly sits with Mildred on the edge of the bed, and thinking about what he said at the bar about agreeing to divorce Mildred, he slowly breaks down into tears, and Mildred gently wraps her arms around him. He tells her through his tears that he is going to care for her even in a tumultuous time. While I didn’t cry through the film, this one scene almost got me choked up because it is just so real and so raw to see Richard, who is normally quiet and stoic-looking, convey his pain and frustration through tears. This incredibly intimate moment shows how incredibly important this case was, and how messed-up it would be if Richard and Mildred Loving had never fallen in love or gotten married, or even took their case to the Supreme Court. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga both brought this incredibly mature and self-aware humanity to such profound roles, and it is truly moving to see them re-create this sensitive humanity so naturally. Neither Mildred nor Richard wanted to be considered heroes even though their case made the Supreme Court, and so I am glad Jeff Nichols wanted to stay true to this. We see several reporters gather around Richard and Mildred when they are walking down the street, and although Mildred is slightly okay with answering the reporters’ questions, Richard is not as interested, and so he leads him and her away from the conundrum.
The film made me think a lot about the Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels campaign, and how we take those commercials for granted, when it’s really the Loving vs. Virginia case that launched the discussion on embracing different expressions of love even if it happened just a few decades ago. Even though people are more progressive now, there are still people who don’t like interracial marriage, LGBTQ+ marriage or any marriage that seems to not conform with the white heteronormative definition of marriage. While this film specifically delves into the institution of race-based discrimination against interracial couples, it made me think about how important this case was for LGBTQ+ people and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Richard and Mildred’s narrative is something that we should study more in schools. The mere words of this post simply cannot convey how truly incredible this film was.
Loving. 2016. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements.