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With this essay, I close my series on Oscar-nominated movies that should have won something. I take an un-romantic view of Hollywood, but I daresay I take beautification more seriously than most. It’s very hard for movies to compete with the kind of Disney/Marvel blockbuster that seems to have mesmerized the movie-going audience. It’s hard to argue with success in America. Organizing prestige a a kind of success that can at least occasionally withstand popularity is needful. It’s not working out as well as I would like, but it’s better than nothing. In 2016, this small, but influential side of movie-making gave us Loving, which I want to discuss today.
Americans have been treated to civil rights stories at the movies for almost a decade now. These are almost always prestige pictures, as opposed to popularity pictures. People who make them don’t really expect to make money by them–not that they would say no to wealth. This is one sign that morality still has a kind of purchase on the movie business. Of course, prestige is not an innocent pursuit, but what’s more important than suspecting people’s intentions now is trying to figure out what Americans might learn from these attempts to talk about justice and dignity. I think we’re broadly agreed that Americans need to pay more attention to history, but at the same time, that history is excessively revisionist these days. Possibly, the partisan character of the story-telling overcomes the all-American need for it. I think it’s true that the people who make these movies have not seen fit to make a great effort to address the American people as a whole, so there’s room for improvement.
It’s hard to find a more eloquent or a quieter statement on these important things than Loving, which is almost invisible in America. It was very successful when it opened in Cannes and has mostly lived on prestige. It’s supposed to have cost a mere $9mln, but barely made 8 back, playing in some 500 theaters at its widest. The large American public never got the chance to like it or dislike it and that’s a crying shame, because it is the rare spectacle that shows American virtues and the predicaments of injustice in America and yet does not make civil rights the center of the story. This is a story about Americans and respects their desire to have lives apart from the great motions and actors of politics. The star of the movie, Miss Ruth Negga, was nominated for an Oscar, so perhaps prestige will give the movie a second life online. I certainly hope so. What other hope is there? The movie is everything popular movies these days are not: slow, black & white, tender and protective of private life, cautious and serious about public things, interested in and respectful of American lives. It tries and, I believe, succeeds, to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose case, taken to the Supreme Court, ended the most peculiar of America’s peculiar race laws, anti-miscegenation laws.
Director Jeff Nichols, America’s premier filmmaker when it comes to anguished manliness, has, for once, the task of telling a rather happy story. Richard and Mildred Loving are a beautiful couple and their happiness, which we have an unexpected chance to see in his movie, is remarkably an American fruit growing out of American soil. This is the rare civil rights picture where we get to see what all-American resources were required to withstand and defeat, in ways both large and small, the American evil of slavery. Equality is not divorced from a happy life warmed by love and dignified by work. Suffering is not without the redemption of justice and public opinion. America is not merely a future of more equality and justice, but also a present where life is worth living.
Richard Loving comes from people so backward, they think black people are as good as whites. His father even worked for a black guy. We learn quickly that to a considerable extent, segregation had to be imposed politically on people in the South. Richard is mocked for his way of life by authorities whom he has to obey, lest he give them an excuse to turn brutal. On the other hand, his black friends tell him, in his moment of suffering, now he knows what it’s like to be black, not merely to be friends with black people or to have married a girl who’s not white. He has their unwavering support and he seems himself never to hesitate. Morally, corruption has not corrupted these people. In their suffering, they can retain their dignity.
Richard works as a bricklayer, and the meaning of his work becomes evident in his peculiar way of proposing. He takes his soon-to-be wife to a field where he bought land and explains about the house he is going to build her. He is a man of few words, who does not seem interested in or educated for sophisticated legal dispute, but he is what the laws cannot be—a man of his word. His protective attitude is under legal attack, but he protects his family through his work and love admirably. His work helps him be more independent, not less, and a source of American confidence and civility is revealed in the ability to offer children a life away from the city. That’s part of what the state of Virginia is mindlessly taking away from him.
Mildred is far more inclined to talk and she turns her problem into a political and a constitutional problem, a question of dignity for all Americans, but especially for the black people who had been denied equal rights. (She was partly of African ancestry.) Her decisions about home life drive the story. She calls Attorney General Robert Kennedy about civil rights issues, who sends the ACLU to help her. She also decides to go back home to have their firstborn and eventually to return for the legal fight, so the children can grow up free to roam.
Richard’s typical phrase is, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” He wants this issue to be decisive, as it should be, but he is not equipped with the public spiritedness required to make it so. His wife, more thoughtful and more talkative, is better equipped, but she also needs the ACLU and political support, as well as the support of public opinion. She invites Life magazine into their home: the public follow the laws in invading privacy, but the public has a democratic fellow-feeling and a love of like to like that opposes the legal violence meant to prop up an ugly, exploitative inequality.
Mildred has to make the private injustice public, but that raises a question, how far can love step out of the home her husband built her and into the public life of America, where they are just two people among many? Finally, Richard refuses to go to the hearing of the case at the Supreme Court. Mildred stays with him. That seems to be the limit—what should be an occasion for public solemnity is rejected. Americans do not go to get their justice from the magistrates. The rights they claim have to do primarily with the privates lives they prefer to live and they incline therefore to preserve as much privacy as possible, when it comes to public things and legal quarrels.
Within these boundaries, the movie makes the effort to bring out the suffering of the Lovings and the quiet dignity with which they withstood it. The danger that bitterness or resignation could corrupt their family life, that it could poison their love or the minds of their children is real, but it is never treated as more important than they are. Their normality, if we can call normal that to which people aspire, is luminous for that reason. The intelligence of the wife, including defiance of the laws, and the self-reliant competence of the man, including his shying away from publicity, are virtues worn very lightly.
To the largest extent now possible to American cinema, this is a movie about what human beings embody and not what they stand up for, or what they believe they stand up for. Their actions belong to these two people in their togetherness in a way that most actions do not belong to us. The dignity of being American is on show—citizenship is part of it, the social condition of equality is part of it, the work and the pleasures that association makes possible are part of it, too. The whole is a complicated phenomenon and, if you are overcome by a sense of curiosity, and even gratitude, watching this movie, you might want to see it again, grateful, too, for its slow pace.
There is in these people no sloganeering and no polemics. This is the kind of happiness that so many Americans yearn for rather hopelessly, usually to be deceived in their innocence by various forms of abstract outrage or materialist desires. Love for another human being and the confident experience of being loved and understood replace the harassed hurrying up after very uncertain temptations.
Finally, do not let me give the impression that, being adults, the Lovings had nothing to learn or that their situation or their story were foreordained. They seem to be well brought up people. The most remarkable thing about their privacy is how devoid of the shameful and the sordid they are. But even such people might be brought low by humiliating injustice or by dangers that throw them into a foreign place or make them homeless. The injustice they were done really must have been a test. Their patient endurance was vindicated, but events might have been even uglier than they were. It is providential for America that things turned out the way they did, and a needful lesson for our own times. No struggle is guaranteed to come to a good result: It takes certain unrewarded and unloved virtues to endure injustice without being mutilated spiritually by it.