Less than 50 years ago, pregnant Mildred Loving, just 19, was thrown into prison along with her husband for the crime of interracial marriage. ‘Loving’ is the story of how a young and in love couple broke down a huge racist barrier.
In 1958, a man and a woman who loved each other deeply, and who were expecting a baby, wanted to get married, but they were forbidden. They weren’t allowed to say their vows anywhere in the state of Virginia. That’s because the woman, Mildred Jeter, 19, was African American and the man, Richard Loving, 26, was white and the state of Virginia had a law — The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — which made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
Loving, the wonderful new film opening today, tells the story of how their quiet love and commitment to their family finally moved the Supreme Court, in 1967, to strike down the laws in Virginia and throughout the country, which prohibited interracial marriage.
Richard and Mildred Loving, played with nuance and sensitivity by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, never saw themselves as activists intent on breaking down discriminatory barriers. They simply fell in love and wanted to live together. They grew up in the small close knit community of Central Point, Virginia, where interracial mixing was casually the norm. It was only when Mildred was pregnant with the couple’s second child and Richard was determined that they marry, that the trouble began.
The film Loving, picks up in the couple’s life as Richard makes the decision that it’s time for them to be married. And to do that, the pair must travel to Washington, DC where it was legal for them to tie the knot. (note: The film takes license and has Mildred pregnant with their first child, not second.)
Trouble comes soon- barging in to the couple’s home in the middle of the night, just six weeks after they became husband and wife. The couple was asleep in their bed — their marriage license proudly nailed to the wall — when the local sheriff and his deputies drag them out and lock them up in prison. While Richard is released the next morning, 5-months pregnant Mildred is held for almost a month.
Loving isn’t a film that dramatizes the anguish of the Loving’s situation. It doesn’t need to. This humble couple, who just wants to go about their ‘normal’ lives, are caught in the most dramatic and discriminatory of situations.
They are sentenced to one year in jail for the crime of being married to each other. Only the intervention of a quick-talking lawyer they’ve hired, keeps Mildred and Richard out of jail. But, they must leave the state of Virginia and never return.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga don’t speak a lot in Loving. The real-life couple, Richard and Mildred, didn’t either according to the director, Jeff Nichols. Nevertheless, their silent eloquence speaks volumes. They are a couple that is as respectful of each other, as they are devoted. That’s why Richard allows his wife to take the lead in what starts out simply as a request to be able to return home to Virginia and to their family without being arrested.
Mildred gets the idea of writing to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy for help. Kennedy refers her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which takes their case, and history is set in motion. The Loving’s young lawyers must argue against the state of Virginia’s position that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents… the fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The simple country life that Richard and Mildred live with their three children is juxtaposed against the enormity of their case, which ends up before the Supreme Court, itself. Richard asks their young lawyers to “tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
It’s an achingly basic plea that is finally answered when the Supreme Court unanimously overturns the couple’s convictions and rules Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and all other similar laws in other states, unconstitutional.
“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. The news reaches the Lovings in a phone call and the film skillfully evokes the huge weight that has been lifted off this couple. They are free.
This is a film that will pull you in and hold you through the last of the credits.
You won’t be surprised to learn that in her later years, Mildred, who died in 2008, was a vocal supporter of gay marriage.
“I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
Thank you, Mildred!