June 26, 2015. I remember sitting at my desk at work and getting a text. Obergefell v. Hodges had been decided, 5-4, and same-sex marriage would now be legal across the country. Five to four, just like that. Without taking anything for granted, milestones like this can feel (retroactively) inevitable, even if this progress was achieved by one vote. We’d been married four weeks the day of the Supreme Court’s decision.
It was also June when Loving v. Virginia was decided. Looking back, I think there are two things hard to reconcile about this groundbreaking case: the Supreme Court justices voted unanimously, and yet it was 1967. To the nine highest justices, the choice must have been obvious, but so many civil rights battles had led up to their decision. The march from Selma and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested and sentenced to leave Virginia in 1958, because he was a white man married to a black woman.
Jeff Nichols, writer and director of the new movie Loving, keeps his focus on the couple themselves, rather than filming a sweeping epic or courtroom thriller. We only see one brief scene inside the Supreme Court; the Lovings stayed home in Virginia during the proceedings, waiting for the news like any other American family. The movie feels very personal, as intimate and natural as the famous image a Life photographer snaps of the Lovings. Social change is a breathtaking side effect to the real victory: a husband and wife finally getting to build on their own plot of land, earning the right to a home for their children. Other than one or two lines that sound written for an awards reel, Loving never goes for easy sentimentality. It doesn’t feel directed or acted, just lived.
The movie’s real tension is internal; so much is unspoken between the Lovings, as they cope with a threatened marriage and a simple life thrown into chaos. Richard shrinks from the growing public attention while Mildred fans the flames, unable to wait around any longer. Both actors are wonderful: Joel Edgerton gives his best performance I’ve seen, a gentle giant who can barely vocalize his pain, who never asked for anything other than to love in peace. Ruth Negga’s Mildred is undaunted, sweetly but firmly pulling the strings that move their case along. Nichols documents how differently she’s treated as a black woman compared to her husband: when they’re first arrested, he’s released on bail while she’s locked up all weekend in the county jail. (Oh, yes, that’s Caroline County—the neighboring county to where I grew up.)
We’re almost fifty years out from Loving v. Virginia. And it’s disheartening to recall how this battle has resurfaced over that half-century. Alabama had remnants of a law banning interracial marriage on its books until 2000. And there are counties in the South that still won’t grant same-sex licenses. Hey, we may be awfully nostalgic soon for a Supreme Court that votes unanimously against discrimination. So it never hurts to remember why fight like this are worth fighting. I think Loving came to theaters at just the right time.