An interracial couple fights for the right to marry in ‘Loving’

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Coming to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Thanksgiving weekend is “Loving.” It’s a film that couldn’t be better timed as an antidote for racism. Appropriately enough, Loving is the name of the biracial couple, played by Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving, who is white, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Jeter, who is African- and Native American.

Director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols has based his quiet domestic drama on the real-life story of the Lovings, who were arrested in 1958 under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which outlawed miscegenation. Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage law had existed since 1691, enacted on the grounds that it led to “spurious issue” or biracial children. At the time of the Loving marriage, 16 states had such laws.

Viewers meet the Lovings as a devoted, working-class couple, initially not married and living in the small Virginia town of Central Point. Richard works in construction, cementing cinder-block foundations. The two watch dirt-road drag races together and kiss as a cluster of white men look on. It is an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come. Other scenes show them listening to music and socializing with friends. These are ordinary folks, happily leading ordinary lives. Taking Mildred to an open field outside of town, Richard proposes and announces his plans to build their home there. Rather than confront Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law head-on, they drive to Washington, D.C., and marry there in 1958.

In the film’s most frightening and violent scene, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his posse burst into the couple’s home in the middle of the night, drag the Lovings out of bed, and arrest them. Richard protests that they are legally married, pointing to the marriage certificate framed and hanging on the wall, but no matter. Haunting scenes follow showing Mildred curled up in a jail cell in her robe. The Loving’s lawyer negotiates with Judge Bazile (David Jensen) to keep them out of prison. Instead, they are ordered to stay out of Virginia for 25 years.

Washington, D.C., where they settle with family, becomes their temporary abode. But Virginia remains their real home, and eventually they return despite the risks. After they are rearrested, they begin a nine-year fight for vindication. Eventually Mildred writes to Bobby Kennedy, who refers their case to the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU lawyers Nick Kroll (Bernie Cohen) and Jon Bass (Phil Kirschkop) take on their cause. Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) brings national attention to the issue, which makes its way to the Supreme Court. In Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court declares laws prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional.

Director Nichols does not sentimentalize or overdramatize his depiction of the Loving story. Its strength comes from the portrayal of Richard and Mildred as people who are not really activists, but simply want their marriage legitimized. An effective Joel Edgerton plays Richard as an inarticulate but emotionally powerful and determined man. When asked by the ACLU lawyers what he wants to say to the Supreme Court justices, he answers, “Tell them I love my wife.” As played by Ruth Negga, a gentler but equally determined Mildred finds her own ways to assert herself. The couple’s fight for justice and ultimate vindication illustrates American values at their best.

For more information and tickets visit mvfilmsociety.com.