Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the Universités de Tours on Loving v Virginia (1967) in relation Ernest J. Gaines’ Of Love and Dust (1967) and Frank Yerby’s Speak Now (1969). Before my lecture, we watched Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016). This was the second time I had seen the movie in about a two-week period, so I was intently focused on various aspects on the film. Namely, I was interested in the ways that the film foregrounds the discussion of the Lovings’ children and the creation of a household. With that in mind, I will focus on these aspects in today’s post. This will not be extensive, but I hope that it will provide some fruitful avenues of discussion.
The film opens with a close up of Mildred Loving’s (Ruth Negga) face as she sits on the front porch of a house at night. A few seconds elapse, we see her face in profile, then she simply states, “I’m pregnant.” Another pause ensues, then the camera shifts to show Richard (John Edgerton) in the shot as well. He replies, “That’s great.” The two continue to sit on the porch and embrace.
By opening the film in this manner, Jeff Nichols foregrounds the issues at stake in the Loving case. These issues surround the construction of family and the private intimacy that individuals share with one another. These discussions, as Alex Lubin notes, take place within the public sphere, making the private public, thus working to maintain ideas of white supremacy.
Along with this, the opening highlights the role that the Lovings’ children played in the 1967 Supreme Court case. In preparing for the case, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) tells the couple that the State of Virginia plans to use the Lovings’ children in their arguments, attempting to show that the children of interracial relationships have are, as R.W. McIlwaine, the attorney for Virginia, put it, “martyrs” and “victims.” McIlwaine told the court, “It is not infrequent that the children of intermarried parents are referred to not merely as the children of intermarried parents but as the victims of intermarried parents and as the martyrs of intermarried parents.”
The use of children to justify arguments against interracial intimacy is nothing new, and in fact it continues to this day as Keith Bardwell showed in 2009 when he refused to officiate the wedding of Beth Humphrey and Terrence McKay out of his presumed fears about how their marriage would psychologically affect their non-existent children. He commented, “I don’t do interracial marriages because I don’t want to put children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves.”
Virginia’s and Bardwell’s comments couch their fears of interracial intimacy underneath the guise of benevolence for existent and non-existent children. Buried beneath this veneer, though, are fears that interracial intimacy will undermine their own positions of power. As well, their comments dehumanize the Lovings and Humphrey and McKay by taking them out of the discussion and focusing on the children. In this manner, they make the private institution of romantic intimacy and marriage into a public issue, one that they can deploy to uphold power.
The film, while foregrounding children, does not focus on this aspect as much as it does the tensions between the private and public spheres where the Lovings relationship plays out. Throughout the film, we see countless images of Richard laying bricks for homes that he builds as a construction worker. We see him take Mildred out to a field and lay out, in his mind for Mildred, the house that he plans to build for her. We see him working on plans for the house. Each of these scenes, and the repetition of these types of scenes, highlights that romantic intimacy is a private right and act. It only becomes public when it threatens the system.
One of the key scenes that drives this home occurs near the end of the film. The Lovings are in their house, one that they rent to hopefully get away from prying eyes, and Richard and Mildred are putting the kids to bed. The scene occurs while the Supreme Court hears their case. We see the Lovings turn off the lights in the kids’ bedrooms, walk down the stairs to their room, stand in the doorway embracing, then shut the door. This is where the scene ends.
The positioning of this scene, inside the house, allows the viewer into the private space of the Lovings’ home, a view we have throughout the film. However, the culmination of the scene, the Lovings standing silhouetted in the bedroom doorway as they shut the door, denies us access to their private intimacy because unlike other scenes they have not granted us access. This is important. We do see intimate scenes between the couple, and we see them inviting people such as Grey Villet into their home to photograph and interview them, but the scene with them shutting the door, especially in the context of the Supreme Court hearings, signifies that their relationship should, and does, exists in the private sphere.
This is important because throughout the film we see the ways that the community in Caroline County polices and makes the Lovings’ relationship into a public concern. This occurs in both the white and black communities. At the beginning of the film, we see Richard and Mildred kissing and hugging after a drag race, a group of white me stand by a car glaring at the couple. In another scene, Richard holds Mildred’s pregnant stomach in a fabric store and the camera shifts to a closeup of the Black store woman’s face as she looks at the act negatively.
Finally, when the couple return to Caroline Country, defying Judge Bazille’s verdict that they should remain away from the county, together, for twenty-five years, we see the family living in a boarding house. Richard comes homes one day after work, and a Black boy follows him from his car to the room where the family is staying. The boy walks up the stairs, staying out of sight, and gazes through the railing in the stairs as Mildred opens the door and the children say, “Daddy.”
Nothing occurs from these explicit acts of surveillance, but their inclusion shows how the Lovings’ relationship, no matter how hard they tried to keep it as private, intimate one existed within the public sphere as well. It existed there because it challenged the community’s views of interracial intimacy and made them come face to face with the history of slavery and racism that has constructed this nation. As Philip J. Hirshkop told the Supreme Court in the oral arguments, “You have before you today what we consider the most odious of the segregation laws and the slavery laws, and our view of this law, we hope to clearly show, is that this is a slavery law.”
There are other aspects of the film that I want to discuss as well, but for today I think this will suffice. This discussion is something I am doing for a larger project, so stay tuned for more. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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