In a perfect world, the union of two people in wedded bliss would simply be a celebration of love and devotion and not some devious threat to the social order.
Alas, none of us live in such an untroubled idyll, so instead marriage often comes loaded with a whole host of conflicting notions, many of which don’t make sense and reflect not so much the reality of these unions as the prejudice and bigotry of those making allegations both for and against.
Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than in the touching, deeply-meaningful Jeff Nichols-directed film Loving, which beautifully and without manipulation or complication takes this down to the simplest and most heartfelt of levels.
In essence, that marriage is about the union of two people who love each other; any other arguments, no matter how volubly or consistently expressed, can’t compete with this self-evident truth.
That’s not say that the holders of contrary views don’t try, as the current marriage equality debate in Australia demonstrates all too well, and up until the 1960s they had prevailed in many states of the Union, which brought in anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited marriage between people of different races.
Like many other discriminatory aspects of American law, this racist notion was put to the test during the Civil Rights era, and quite successfully too as Loving shows, but at the time of the marriage of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) in 1958 it was still very much against the law in Caroline County, Virginia, indeed the entire state, for a white man and a black woman to get married.
Realising this, Richard, a quietly-spoken construction worker who rightly believed that the fact that he loved his wife is enough (as indeed it should be), took Mildred to Washington, D.C. to tie the knot before returning home and proudly hanging his marriage license on the wall.
In a sign of just how resolutely Richard believed this was sufficient proof of his right to legally cohabit with the woman he loves, and how little regard the state of Virginia, represented by the local Sheriff (Martin Csokas), there is one scene in Loving which powerfully underscores how great that gulf was at the time.
As the Sheriff bursts into the home of Mildred’s parents in the dead of night – Richard was about to build Mildred a home only 1/2 mile from where she’d grown up – and roughly rouses Richard and Mildred from their marital bed, Richard points to the license as if this should be proof enough of his right to be with his wife.
It’s disregarded almost immediately by the sheriff and his fellow policeman who throw Richard into prison overnight and Mildred for three days until they can independently post bail – because Richard is not recognised as Mildred’s husband he is disallowed from acting on her behalf, that role falling to her father (Christopher Mann) – but it speaks with powerful eloquence to the simple but true belief held by Richard that there is nothing standing in the way of their union.
Richard and Mildred don’t win this initial battle nor a number of others that follow, but even through their exile in Washington, D.C., the punishment for the “crime” of breaking the anti-miscegenation law, Mildred especially believes they can win the war.
It’s a war that unspools over a decade, during which the American Council of Civil Liberties (ACLU), represented by well-meaning but green lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), take the case of Richard and Mildred all the way to the Supreme Court where they are successful, overturning anti-miscegenation laws throughout the U.S. and dismantling another plank in the palpably racist laws that governed the lives of many Americans.
It’s without a doubt a powerful and portentous moment but the script by Jeff Nichols, which is based on The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski, frames in terms of what it means to the Lovings in simple practical terms.
Unwilling to attend the Supreme Court proceedings in Washington, Richard opts to stay on the remote farm in King and Queen County, Virginia, where they have quietly and defiantly returned to raise their three children – who are cruelly described as bastards by the prosecutors from the state – and Mildred, ever the obedient wife, though she is hardly a doormat and is in fact the driver behind the court cases, complies, leaving their lawyer to convey the news down a crackly phone line.
It might seem like an underwhelming way to document such a momentous development, but it is entirely in keeping with the spirit and intent of Loving, which keeps its focus firmly on Richard and Mildred’s caring and deeply-supportive relationship.
It eschews big bombastic, overly-dramatic court scenes and grandiose pivotal moments redolent with emotionally-manipulative exchanges, for quiet, introspective moments that are not without power or import, but which don’t feel the need to shout their intentions from the dramatic rooftop.
Rather Loving sensitively opts for nuanced understatement, rightly confident in the fact that the real story here is the strength of a relationship so profoundly close that it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by it.
Communicated loud and clear, through various key scenes, is the depth of Richard’s devotion to his wife, who is adamant he will take care of her come what may – in a 2008 interview before her death, which is acknowledged in the credits, Mildred paid tribute to her husband saying “I miss him. He took care of me” – and indeed he does, backing her decision to seek justice all the way to the Supreme Court even if he is uncomfortable with the attention it brings the couple (which includes a photo spread in Life magazine by Grey Villet, played by Michael Shannon).
While the court cases are given due coverage, the film doesn’t linger on them, choosing at every turn to celebrate the reason why the legal battles were occurring in the first place.
Important thought the ramifications for civil rights were, and they were considerable, the real import of the Supreme Court’s decision was to recognise what people like Richard and Mildred Loving, and indeed anyone denied the right to marry knows in their heart already – that there is nothing illegal or deficient in their love and that it deserves the same recognition as that of anyone else, race, colour, creed or sexuality be damned.