Movie Review: Loving (2016)
What are the odds that in the federal case striking down state laws banning interracial marriage, the plaintiff’s name would be “Loving”?
I thought about that a lot as the Obergefell case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. I mean, no offense James Obergefell, but Loving v. Virginia? That’s stark. It’s as if the case were called Love v. Racism. One wonders if that wasn’t part of the appeal for U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the ACLU. They had the right name.
“Loving,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Midnight Special”), is good history but so-so drama. It’s as spare and quiet as its protagonists. Too much so.
The first half works. We watch as the day-to-day love, and then pregnancy, and then marriage, between Richard and Mildred Loving (James Edgerton and Ruth Negga) of Caroline County Virginia, comes to the attention of the authorities. One of the most powerful scenes is when they plead guilty to, you know, marriage, and bend to the weight of an oppressive system. Standing in U.S. District Court before Judge Bazile (David Jensen), you see Richard’s eyes searching for an answer and not finding it. Some part of him knows he’s right to love as he loves. But he also knows he’s not smart—not book smart, like his lawyer Frank Beazly (Bill Camp, always a pleasure)—and he can’t find a way out. There’s almost something like Huck Finn in this scene. Huck acted on a greater inner morality to help free Nigger Jim, but felt immoral doing so because he was going against society’s norms. Richard is a step up. He knows society is wrong; he just can’t articulate it.
White, black, yellow, malay and red
He can’t articulate much. He does his talking with his hands—building rather than fighting. He works construction during the week and tinkers with cars on the weekend. He’s a maestro with both. Otherwise, he’s quiet, simple. At her family’s dinner table in 1958, one of her brothers, whom Richard helps with drag racing, asks him how many races he’s won over the years, and you see Richard tabulating in his mind. Then he comes back with: “A lot.” To dinner-table laughter, including his own. Another nice scene.
Richard is actually one of my favorite kinds of people—the quietly efficient man—and Edgerton, in an Oscar-nomination-worth performance, embodies him. He’s a man caught between love of wife and love of home, and he does what he can to try to make it work.
As a character, though, Richard disappoints in the second half, which is maybe why I found the second half disappointing. Inspired by the March on Washington, Ruth writes U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who forwards her letter to the ACLU, whose representative, a young lawyer named Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), contacts her at their home in D.C. He’ll take the case, no charge, but Richard is suspicious from the get-go. He never gets behind, never trusts, his legal team—which eventually includes Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass)—and one wonders if it’s because they’re both Jewish, educated, or because he’s had enough of the criminal justice system. Or is it because they’re outsiders? Different? From Brooklyn? Richard still trusts the local. He thinks it’s enough to go before Judge Bazile again. He trusts Bazile more than he trusts the federal government. Plus ca change.
He shouldn’t. This is Bazile’s judgment on interracial marriage once the ACLU gets involved:
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.
(One wonders about that “Malay”; what color was “Malay”? Answer here. Not pretty. )
I could’ve used more of the legal arguments and precedents, to be honest. That’s a lot to ask from a movie, I know, but its point of view is ours: that the anti-miscegenation law is immoral. Yet it was still law for decades, and it still used the U.S. Constitution as a rationale for its injustice.
What was that rationale? It actually came up in this case. In 1965, Cohen and Hirschkop appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the Virginia law was upheld, and among its arguments was one first put forth in 1883 in Pace v. Alabama: that what the state did to the Lovings was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment “because both the white and the non-white spouse were punished equally for the crime of miscegenation.” That’s some twisted logic right there; yet that logic stayed on the books for nearly a century. We need that reminder; we need to know the future isn’t secure.
Nor did the Loving case even end it. The South, being the South, kept rising up. From Wikipedia:
Local judges in Alabama continued to enforce that state's anti-miscegenation statute until the Nixon administration obtained a ruling from a U.S. District Court in United States v. Brittain in 1970. In 2000, Alabama became the last state to adapt its laws to the Supreme Court's decision, when 60% of voters endorsed a ballot initiative that removed anti-miscegenation language from the state constitution.
Sparrows and robins
Watching “Loving,” I kept thinking of my grandmother, who grew up in Carroll County, Maryland, about 150 miles from Caroline County, Virginia.
I remember visiting her in 1989 after I’d been away in Taiwan for a year, and at one point she asked me if I’d had a Chinese girlfriend. I said yes. She absorbed this, and then with a head nod, added, “They make good wives: meet at the door, take off your shoes, rub your feet.” This devolved into a conversation about interracial relationships. She was still against the black/white variety, and, more, still made the same 1950s arguments they make in this movie. Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), trying to be kind, tells Richard about God’s law, “sparrow with a sparrow, robin with a robin,” and my grandmother, in 1989, said something similar: “A big black bird don’t mate with a little yella sparrow,” she said. Then she smiled as if she were playing the trump card; as if that argument ended it.
The outrage of the first half of the movie almost demands something like the Ron Motley deposition scene in “The Insider” (“You do not get to instruct anything around here!”), but Nichols withholds it. Maybe it was undramatic but he certainly under-dramatizes it. Ruth stays quiet but polite but interested in the case; Richard stays reticent and distant and wary. The lawyers never really connect with him (nor Nichols with the lawyers), and neither Ruth nor Richard show up at the U.S. Supreme Court when their case is argued. The argument before the court isn’t fiery. Maybe it wasn’t. The best line is Richard’s, spoken on his front porch, after Cohen asks him if there’s anything he’d like to say to the justices. His response comes out more confused than determined: “Tell them I love my wife,” he says.