Of the three significant American movies out at the moment about race relations, my first choice to go and see was Loving.
I chose it over Moonlight because although that film is undoubtedly worth seeing – it won the Best Picture Oscar after all – my preference is for true stories.
I was put off Hidden Figures because I heard there’s a sequence in which one of the female hero characters gets her high heel trapped in a floor grate while trying to escape some imminent workplace danger. Now, while I’ve got nothing against making things up for dramatic effect, this strikes me as a silly cliche which only demeans the integrity of the real story – the hitherto unsung role of African-American women mathematicians in the American space program.
And so to Loving – the true story of a white man and a black woman in 1950s Virginia who ran afoul of state law by living together. Their case made legal, social and political history when it was referred by Robert Kennedy’s office to the American Civil Liberties Union who took it to the Supreme Court, which came down on their side and declared their right to love, marry and raise a family.
The husband, brilliantly played by Joel Edgerton, comes from a poor white family that seems to have always ‘gotten on’ with its black neighbours. His relationship to the woman who becomes his wife is known to, and disapproved of by, the wider community, but it’s only when she gets pregnant and they marry that the local sheriff, possibly tipped off by one of the husband’s drag-racing rivals, has the couple arrested and prosecuted under state law. They have to either divorce or leave their home and move to another state.
This is outrageously wrong, of course, but the filmmakers don’t exaggerate or sentimentalise the story. The main players – the two families, the cops, the townspeople – are for the most part uneducated country folk, and they are depicted in all their ordinariness. Although our sympathies are with this interracial couple, there are no outright goodies and baddies, and though there is palpable hostility and menace there is (thank God) no violence.
The characters don’t suddenly transcend their limitations to deliver speeches of soaring rhetoric about liberty and love. In fact Edgerton’s character is quite timid in the face of authority and notably inarticulate, and in a testament to the power of restraint in creating drama, when the young Jewish lawyer who’s taken their case asks him what he would have him say to the justices of the United States Supreme Court , the only thing he can think of is to tell them that he loves his wife.
Such a story needs no cheap Hollywood contrivances, and it doesn’t get any. One thing came to the filmmakers as a ready-made gift, though: the title. The man’s surname really was Richard Loving.