When publicity assistant Perpetua Charles and senior editor Joanna Green first began planning a staff trip to see the film Loving in celebration of Beacon’s forthcoming book on the same topic five months ago, they couldn’t have known for sure what our political environment would be as they and fellow members of the Beacon Press staff walked through a rainy November night to the theater. Exactly a week after the country watched the electoral votes tally in favor of a divisive Republican presidential candidate, we came together to view a retelling of how Mildred and Richard Loving, a young interracial couple from Virginia, helped end the ban on interracial marriage in the United States.
“Biopics like this leave you with an overwhelming sense of hope, right? Making you think that as soon as the anti-miscegenation laws were overturned, every interracial couple was getting married left and right and naysayers kept their mouths shut. But that’s surely not what happened,” Perpetua said, going into the film.
From reading an early copy of Sheryll Cashin’s upcoming book, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, I gradually came to the understanding that the story this film set out to tell feels big because it is big. Not only is it the story of Richard and Mildred Loving—their love, their decision to formally wed, their beloved hometown of Central Point, Virginia turning against them, their exile to Washington D.C., and the ten years they spent mired in the legal battle that would culminate in the seminal Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision. It is also a four hundred-year-old story of people defying a deeply entrenched and fiercely protected color line to love or marry in America. It is a story that has gone on for as long as this country has existed, and as this election has confirmed, is nowhere near over.
“On one level, it seems a simple story, one told at an unusually deliberate pace. But talking about it, peeling back layers in the performances, especially in company with an editor—Joanna Green—who is so well versed on the details of the case, really allowed the nuances to reveal themselves,” said director of Beacon Press, Helene Atwan on viewing the film.
But if you didn’t know any of this coming into the film, you probably wouldn’t know it leaving either. As big and as broad as the story of interracial love is in America, Loving maintained a precise and intentional closeness to the Loving family—Mildred, Richard, their three children, and a periphery cast of mixed-race friends and family who characterized the population of Central Point.
“I was astounded by how much the actors resembled the real-life people. I very much felt like a fly on the wall in the family’s everyday life,” said senior editor, Rakia Clark.
Between shots of domestic life infused with warm, southern light and subtle, often wordless exchanges between characters—tilts of the head, Richard’s hand cradling Mildred’s pregnant belly, Mildred’s parents saying quiet goodbyes to the daughter they never thought they’d see again after her and Richard’s exile from Virginia—it became clear that despite the magnitude of what the Loving’s marriage meant to the country and to their community, these were simple, non-confrontational people. Not simple as in simple-minded, but in terms of their barest desire to live and let live—to be able to focus on normal family things like broken cars, the electric bill, building a home and a family and a life.
“What struck me most about Loving,” commented assistant to the director, Maya Fernandez, “was the sincere simplicity of their story. There was no malice or aim to spark controversy in their rural community. Richard and Mildred just wanted the right to live together in peace.”
And this is the aspect of the Loving v. Virginia case the film captured most successfully. The focus on the concrete realities of how this particular family encountered the most engrained, most insidious manifestations of racism revealed an issue even grander and more universal than the fight against anti-miscegenation laws.
“I’ve been describing Sheryll Cashin’s next book partly as a history of white supremacy in America,” says Cashin’s editor, Joanna Green. “Cashin powerfully illustrates how white supremacy was and is foundational to US capitalism and expansion; thus, segregation proves to be an essential tactic. The Lovings dared to cross the color line, and their story reveals why that color line was constructed. In fact, the Loving decision was the first and only time the Court ever used the potent words ‘White Supremacy’ (in caps) to name such ideology. It’s surprising that so few people are aware of this case.”
Though the actual Lovings were somewhat more outspoken and involved in their case, it is true that Richard and Mildred were not at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement; they watched the protests in Birmingham on TV. “A world away,” Mildred commented in the film. They were imprisoned (several more times than the film suggests), but not in the name of an ideology of civil disobedience or organized resistance. They were not overtly “political,” and in the film, until the young lawyer, Bernard Cohen, picked up their case, they had never heard of the ACLU. During the course of the film, the couple began to understand the larger implications of their case, and truly hoped their example would help other interracial couples like them. But they are by no means the cinematic, Atticus-Finch-or-Rosa-Parks figures that have become synonymous with Civil Rights.
“Too often in biopics, figures are stripped down to one-dimensional beings—loud equals strong and quiet equals cowardly. But [the Lovings’] strength resided in their determination; they did not need to be bombastic or over-the-top in order to achieve their goal,” Perpetua said.
I admit, in this moment of political uncertainty, a movie celebrating America’s progress in race relations was difficult to watch. At moments, I was occupied with the useless project of imagining the hows and whys of our Republican government trifecta could reverse the Loving v. Virginia decision—and more generally, whatever other progress there is to be lost.
More importantly, it was yet another reminder that no matter how much time one commits to learning about the theoretical structures and histories of systemic racism and white supremacy, if you are white, college educated, and living in a liberal coastal city, you are relatively isolated from the brutal reality of both those things. Simply understanding them on an intellectual level is obviously not enough.
It is a bitter pill a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned people must swallow, especially as the character of the new administrative cabinet takes on a more sinister shape. Despite calls for concrete action on behalf of our most vulnerable communities, there seems to be a pervasive paralysis preventing widespread and unified dissent. It is an issue that stems from the idea that big change can only be made by big people—those ten-foot-tall blockbuster figures who perpetuate an American mythology of individual might in the face of enormous odds.
And this is where we must remember the lessons the Loving family made clear. This is not a case to be made for passivity or resignation, but a vote of confidence for the power of the average citizen who can exercise their rights to vote, to hold their government representatives accountable, to run for local office themselves, to protest, to write op-eds, to donate to causes important to them, and to make themselves as civically un-ignorable as possible. Each individual form of resistance or community engagement may not be the knock-out blow against the fear and hate that got us here, or as glorious as testifying in front of the Supreme Court, but their collective strength is the most underestimated power available to us.
About the Author
Ayla Zuraw-Friedland joined Beacon Press in 2015 as editorial assistant to senior editors Joanna Green, Rakia Clark, and Jill Petty. She is a graduate of the Literatures in English program at Connecticut College, and spends the better part of her time haunting the indie coffee shops and bookstores along the Orange Line.