In June 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Perry Loving married in the District of Columbia. The couple then returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia. In the parlance of the time, Mildred was “colored.” Richard was white.
Six weeks later, the local sheriff and his deputies burst into the Lovings’ bedroom in the middle of the night. The sheriff arrested both Mildred and Richard, as Virginia law prohibited interracial marriage. The couple pled guilty to breaking the law, and the court sentenced each of the Lovings to one year in the state penitentiary. The judge then suspended the sentence, provided the couple left Virginia and did not return for twenty-five years. The Lovings moved with their children to Washington, DC — at least for a while — but spent the next decade fighting for the right to have their marriage legally recognized in the state they considered home. Their battle eventually wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage violated the fourteenth amendment of the US Constitution. While a victory for the Lovings, the ruling also deemed unconstitutional the remaining laws against interracial marriage that still existed in sixteen states.1
June 2017 marks fifty years since the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision. The incipient anniversary has sparked renewed interest in the case and inspired a slew of books and films, the most recent of which is the feature film Loving, released on November 4. Directed by Jeff Nichols, the film is produced by a consortium including Nancy Buirski, who also produced and directed the excellent 2012 documentary, The Loving Story.2
Loving begins with the marriage of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving in 1958, then proceeds to follow the lives of the couple closely over the next decade, ending with the outcome of the Supreme Court decision in 1967.
The court cases shape the film’s narrative, but they do not overwhelm it. The focus is clearly the intimacy and closeness of the relationship between Mildred and Richard and the interior struggles each faced. Richard Loving, for example, is sensitively portrayed by lead actor Joel Edgerton as a man constantly grappling with his masculinity, frustrated by his seeming inability to protect his wife and challenged by the well-educated lawyers who are able to solve the problem he cannot: the legitimacy of his marriage. Ruth Negga, in turn, superbly captures the delicate balancing act Mildred Jeter performed throughout her marriage to Richard Loving. Jeter, as Negga accurately represents, was a devoted wife and mother always in the home. Yet, as the film reminds us, it was her initiative and determination that brought the Lovings’ case to the attention of the ACLU and the world beyond Caroline County.
Although a feature film, not a documentary, Loving’s attention to historical accuracy is commendable. Dialogue, clothing, hairstyles, even mannerisms of both Mildred and Richard: all are carefully recreated by the filmmakers who have drawn extensively on actual footage of the Lovings, most of which can be viewed in the documentary The Loving Story. Historians are, however, likely to find themselves frustrated by broader issues that Loving leaves underdeveloped.
In choosing to focus closely on the relationship between Richard and Mildred Loving, the film sacrifices historical context. Richard Loving, for example, seems the only white man to befriend African-Americans in the entire county. As such, Loving’s relationship with Mildred Jeter seems oddly inexplicable: simply a story of two star-crossed lovers gone awry. Similarly, the singular focus on the Loving case means that the film tends to lose sight of the bigger picture. Why was the Loving case so significant? The film tries to address this question, but does so awkwardly. At one point, Philip Hirschkop — one of the ACLU lawyers representing the Lovings — clumsily suggests that the outcome of the case will potentially change the US Constitution. The comment, coming from the mouth of a lawyer, seems careless, ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court cannot change the Constitution itself, only how the Constitution is interpreted.
Overall, Loving needed to provide greater context about the importance of the case. Even a passing reference to the number of states with anti-miscegenation laws, for example, would have provided necessary historical perspective. While the film makes gestures toward national changes, such as the March on Washington in 1963 in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the references seem forced. Even the 1924 Virginia Racial Integrity Act — the law that dictated the Lovings’ arrest — remains unmentioned. To the filmmakers, Loving is clearly a love story first, and second, a civil rights narrative.
What, then, is the value of Loving? The film does do well in challenging some preconceptions that may exist about the era. Violence, such as the type that white racists typically inflicted upon African Americans during the 1960s, is notably absent from the film. This is a potential shortcoming, given that Mildred Loving observed elsewhere that a cross had been burnt on her mother’s lawn as the Loving case moved slowly through the court system.3 What the absence of overt violence in Loving does, however, is shed light on the less overt forms of white racism both then and now. The racists in Loving do not burn crosses, or hurl bricks through windows, or dress up in white robes with pointy hats. Rather, they occupy the sheriff’s office and the judge’s bench, a timely reminder that white racists have long cloaked themselves in the clothing of those meant to protect rather than persecute.
Loving is, at its heart, a love story. Yet, even with its failings and omissions, it is a story that may prompt the American public to rethink conventional narratives of civil rights. Not every white racist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and not every activist participated in a lunch counter sit-in. In 1958, the young Richard and Mildred just did what ordinary Americans across the nation were doing: they fell in love, they got married, and they began to build a family together. In reminding us how ordinary the story of the Lovings was, the film challenges the skeptic in us all to acknowledge that love can and did change the course of history.
- Peter Wallenstein, Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry: Loving v. Virginia (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014): 75-140. Return to text.
- Book-length studies on the case include Kevin Noble Maillard and Rose Cuison Villazor, Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Phyl Newbeck, Virginia Hasn’t Always Been For Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Mildred and Richard Loving (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); and Wallenstein, Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry. Return to text.
- Mildred Loving refers to the cross-burning incident in interview footage from 1965. See Powell and Buirski, The Loving Story. Return to text.