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It is one of those beautiful coincidences in life that the surname of the couple whose union ended state legislation in the USA against interracial marriages was Loving. The love story between Richard and Mildred was narrated last year in a quite successful film, simply called Loving, directed and written by Jeff Nichols http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4669986/. This was based on the 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1759682/). Curiously, and this is more and more frequent in US cinema, neither actor playing the Lovings is American: Joel Edgerton is Australian and Ruth Negga–who received an Oscar nomination for the role–though born in Ethiopia to a Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, was raised in Ireland. This constant use of foreign actors deserves perhaps another post but before I start rambling, just let me say why the film Loving, whose title plays so nicely with the surname, is so fine: it’s because how Mildred and Richard look at each other with a loving gaze, hardly ever seen in contemporary cinema.
Nichols took his inspiration for his presentation of the Lovings from Grey Villet’s photos of the couple in the intimacy of their very modest Virginia home, published in 1965 by Life magazine, and now gathered together in a book, with an obvious title, The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait. Take a look at some of the pictures for instance here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2017/mar/29/the-lovings-in-pictures. What you see is a white man and a non-white woman (Mildred was of mixed African-American and Native-American descent) happily enjoying their home life with their three children. Since the Lovings were working-class (Richard worked as a builder, she was a housewife), the photos have nothing to do with the middle and upper-middle class idealized families with whom we tend to connect a happy home life, quite stereotypically. What the photos plainly transmit, as this is Villet’s merit, is that these five persons, specially husband and wife, love each other very much. Believably and credibly, as you don’t often see in our jaded times.
Nichols’ film eventually reaches the tipping point when this mixed-race couple, initially the victims of racist Virginia legislation like others, become a fundamental case in the annals of the US Supreme Court. This is in the second half of the film. The first five minutes are, however, the most challenging ones. Why? Because before the legal arguments are built and presented, you simply see how deeply Richard and Mildred love each other, and how happy he is made by her announcement that she is pregnant. Indeed, the naturality of this opening segment is such that uninformed spectators might initially believe that this is a romantic fantasy and not a real-life story, for we’re not used to the very simple idea that love does happen between individuals of different races. And we hardly ever see this kind of couple portrayed. It’s about time we wonder why.
I have the legal details of the Lovings’ struggle to earn their right to live freely as a married couple from the film, and, so, they might be incorrect or limited. Basically, since as residents of Virginia they could not marry in this state, due to its cynically named ‘Racial Integrity Act’ of 1924, in 1958 the couple travelled to Washington D.C. to get married there. They, however, returned home. Soon, they were arrested (at this point Mildred was heavily pregnant) and given a sort of exile sentence, which prevented them from being in Virginia together for the following 25 years.
They moved back to Washington D.C., visiting family separately for a few years. Tired of city life and missing the country, Mildred decided in 1964 that they should go home, where they faced a harsh prison sentence and risked losing custody of their children. She sent then a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Volunteer attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop started then the journey that would eventually lead the Lovings’ case to be heard three years later by the Supreme Court. The film explains that the Lovings kept themselves apart from the process to avoid hearing the Virginia legal team referring to their children as bastards.
The Supreme Court judges reached on 12 June 1967 a decision on ‘Loving v. Virginia’. They ruled, in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, that: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival (….). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law”. This put an end to anti-miscegenation legislation, still applied then in 15 American states. 12 June is now National Loving Day in celebration of interracial love. By the way, Warren’s argumentation was also recently invoked by defenders of lesbian and gay marriage.
Many issues overlap, then, in Nichols’ subtle film and in the story of the Lovings. One is how come that their names are not better known? Is it because the USA are somehow hiding their embarrassing anti-miscegenation legislation that there is an interested silence about the heroes who resisted it? Reading about the Nazi Nuremberg Race Laws (1935) banning Jews from marrying ‘Aryan’ Germans as an absolute horror, I was dismayed to read that many American states in the Union had their own one-drop rule. That is to say, they passed legislation to prevent whites from marrying blacks, thus preventing racial mixing or miscegenation. The one-drop rule determined that, regardless of whether a person appeared to be racially white, if this person had a black ancestor, then s/he was regarded as black, and, hence, banned from marrying a white individual. Laws defending this principle were passed in the southern States from the 1890s onwards, peaking in the 1920s with, for instance, Virginia’s 1924 infamous act. This was, you see?, before the Nazi anti-miscegenation laws. And, as Loving narrates, this kind of detestable legislation stayed put until the late 1960s.
Let me go back to the film’s narrative style and its focus on the loving/Loving gaze. Just by coincidence, I was reading this morning a paper by Darko Suvin in which he wonders whether scopophilia is somehow connected with the Freudian death wish. Let me explain: ‘scopophilia’, or ‘pleasure in looking’ is a central piece in Laura Mulvey’s feminist attack against classical cinema, famously expressed in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). As Mulvey argued, invoking Freud, cinema was (and still is) aimed at eliciting the scopophilia of the male spectator by using the female body as an erotic object. I think that Mulvey, like Freud, forgot about how important women’s erotic gaze is (whether lesbian or heterosexual) but I don’t want to pursue this argument now. What I want to stress is that whether diagetic or extradiagetic–that is to say, whether this is actors looking at each other, or spectators looking at actors–the contemporary male and female gaze has been so sexualized that it is actually excluding love. I think this impression underlies Suvin’s claim that scopophilia is today fundamentally cannibalistic and destructive.
This is why I was stunned, this is the word, by Loving. You may have seen thousands of actors avidly staring at each other, trying to transmit some kind of electric feeling growing between them, but this is not love–it’s passion, or lust. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga look at each other and, as the spectator gazing at them, you understand that Richard and Mildred love each other, a feeling that goes far beyond in depth than the sexual desire currently dominating the human gaze in audio-visual production (both cinema and series). Perhaps this is so because the actors and the film director are copying what is documented in Villet’s photos, presenting for once love as it is in reality, not as it is fantasized about. Since Nichols is making a moving picture, and not a still picture like Villet, his problem is how to avoid the intense melodrama of the Lovings’ life. The result is a slap in the face of all those films that fail to represent love, convinced instead that–excuse me for sounding so prudish–love is best portrayed by showing the couple in question having sex. It turns out that love is most lovingly shown by the simple touch of a (white) hand on a (black) hand.
Racism is one of the most absurd aberrations produced by the human mind and it would be nice to see it over, the sooner the better. Loving helps us very much to understand the nature of the aberration (as another beautiful film, Hidden Figures, does). Yet, we must recall that although one-drop rule legislation is, happily, a thing of the past, the racist misgivings against miscegenation might not be. I wonder, for instance, whether Barack Obama would have been elected President if Michelle had been white and their girls mixed-race. Not to mention the fact that even though Obama’s mother is white, he is labelled (and self-identifies) as black…
Not there yet, then. In the meantime, enjoy loving/Loving.
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