That the couple at the centre of a fight against the state to defend their right to marry should be surnamed ‘Loving’ seems almost made for the realm of film and literature. ‘Loving vs Virginia’ is surely one of the most beautiful of court-case titles.
In June 1958, two residents of Virginia, Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in Washington, DC- one of the only places where they could legally be married due to America’s ugly history of miscegenation laws. After their marriage, and on returning to their home state, the couple was charged with ‘unlawful cohabitation’, and jailed. The couple left Virginia, a condition of their suspended sentence, but in 1967, after five years forced to live away from their home and amidst the growing civil rights movement, Mildred wrote to US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy- from here, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special) takes this unassuming couple and their case as his subject in his new film Loving, for which Ruth Negga has been Oscar-nominated for her role as Mildred Loving. The film, as soft and restrained as the couple on screen, celebrates the courage and commitment of Richard and Mildred Loving, but is reluctant to create dramatic grandstanding as perhaps some other Hollywood films would have. Richard Loving sent a simple message to the justices of the Supreme Court: “Tell the Court I love my wife and it is just not fair that I cannot live with her in Virginia” and the film is similarly understated, with the attention of the court case itself superceded by the depiction of the private dignity of a couple who are only fighting so that they can be left alone. Joel Edgerton as Richard is clearly reluctant to make any bold statements, while the power and heart of the film is with Ruth Negga as Mildred and the way her eyes flit towards his. The two stand as a rebuke to the racism of their time and place.
Maybe there really is some ‘great’ America that the nation wants to regain. But it was these small, quiet people that in their own small, quiet way gave greatness to a country that treated them as less than that. A young black woman writing a letter to a powerful white man, to defend her own rights to live and love as she pleased.
Loving will be screening at the Institute of Light from Friday 24 February