“Loving” shows Virginia at its most romantic and picturesque. Toward the beginning of the drama, a man takes his pregnant wife-to-be to an empty field and tells her in a slow drawl, “I’m going to build you a house right here.”
The couple stand on a patchy, tree-lined stretch of grass, the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas pulsing around them. Low-hanging clouds pass languidly overhead, and the grass flutters in the breeze; humidity practically radiates off the screen.
In the movie, Virginia is the place where these sweethearts, played by Golden Globe nominees Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, meet and fall for each other in the mid-1950s. But it’s also the place where a white man and his wife, who’s black and Native American, would get arrested for the crime of cohabitating. Virginia forced Richard and Mildred Loving to go to jail or leave the state they loved, and they spent nearly a decade in Washington, D.C., trying to return.
Virginia showed up in three major movies this year, all based on true stories. “The Birth of a Nation,” a drama about the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner, takes place in Southampton County, not far from the setting of “Hidden Figures,” which opens Sunday and tells the story of black female mathematicians working for NASA during the space race.
These dramas capture the conflicted nature of the commonwealth — the way progress and resistance are in constant battle, with some citizens rejecting the status quo just as forcefully as others cling to it.
Is there something particular about Virginia that makes these kinds of stories more likely? Maybe. Andrew Talkov, vice president for programs at the Virginia Historical Society, recently noted how Virginia includes both the Deep South and the liberal North.
Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, even though it’s a mere 100 miles from Washington, where Abraham Lincoln was working to set all men free. Virginia was the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, who called slavery a “moral and political depravity” but owned slaves all the same. It’s the state where one of the largest Confederate flags in the country flies, just outside of Danville, erected in response to the city’s decision to take its own banner down.
Similarly, in “Loving,” Virginia became the place that made interracial marriage legal — but only because the Supreme Court forced its hand.
The film takes a sensitive and knowing approach to its setting. Director Jeff Nichols chose to film there, and the Little Rock native understands the tricky magnetism of the region.
“The South is a complex place, and, for all the things that we love about it, there are also things we don’t love about it,” Nichols said. “But that doesn’t minimize the fact that it’s home and you’re drawn to these people and this culture, and the smell, and the feel, and the heat and everything else.”
Today, the Lovings’ Caroline County is still a bucolic area where farming and timber are the main industries. Residents are churchgoers — there are seven places of worship in the small town of Bowling Green alone — and they’re active in civic organizations such as the Rotary Club and the Lions.
Bowling Green is the kind of place where two volunteers from the county’s historical society were happy to spend their Thursday morning chatting about the good old days with a journalist who also happens to be a Virginia native — albeit from a little farther north.
“We call that occupied Virginia,” society President Wayne Brooks told me with a chuckle.
The Lovings seem like a footnote in this quiet county’s history. Native Bernard Collins remembers Mildred as an extremely gracious lady, but she and her family were by no means local celebrities.
Their story is just one of many at the historical society, which takes up a room in a small museum dedicated to a painter best known for his Civil War battlefield scenes. Out front there’s a monument commemorating the valor of the resident soldiers who served in the Confederate army, not far from a black obelisk dedicated to the county’s African American citizens, who “overcame slavery and other forms of prejudice to make many significant contributions to the county.” The Stonewall Jackson Shrine is just up the road at the small white building where the Confederate general died of pneumonia in 1863 after he was mistakenly shot by his own men.
Around the corner from the historical society is the dilapidated prison where Mildred Loving was jailed after the county sheriff stormed into the couple’s bedroom in the middle of the night and told them that the District marriage certificate on their wall was “no good here.”
Bowling Green was overwhelmed when thousands of people poured in after a casting call for extras in “Loving.” But in the middle of an autumn weekday, the only sound is the flags, one Virginian, one American, flapping in the breeze.
Truthfully, the Lovings probably wouldn’t have minded flying under the radar in Caroline County; they remained press-shy after the trial. Richard was killed in a car accident in 1975, and Mildred died of pneumonia in 2008.
During their exile in Washington, they never took to the bustling hubbub, the landscape of pavement and asphalt. Eventually, the couple and their three children secretly moved back to the state, just beyond the jurisdiction of the Caroline County sheriff.
“She loved her home and was willing to risk the safety of herself and her family to be next to it,” Nichols said of Mildred. “I think that was part of her spirit. She just needed that place.”
Months later, the Supreme Court ruled in the couple’s favor and Richard finally got to build that house.
In their own quiet way, the Lovings were rebels, much like the change agents in this year’s other Virginia movies.
Nat Turner was an anomaly even before he started a slave revolt that led to the deaths of 60 white men, women and children — and the slayings of hundreds of slaves in retaliation. He knew how to read, which is how he became a traveling preacher. At least in the movie, that unique chance to see the rest of the state opened his eyes to atrocities at other plantations, and what he saw shocked and emboldened him.
Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie, grew up in Norfolk, but he didn’t find out about the revolt until he went to college out of state.
“Imagine my dismay in learning that one of the greatest men to walk the soil in this country was a man who grew up and lived and breathed and fought less than 100 miles from where I grew up,” Parker told the Hollywood Reporter this year.
He spent seven years trying to remedy the situation with a movie. The drama had epic momentum after a promising debut at Sundance in January but fizzled when 1999 rape allegations involving Parker and his co-screenwriter Jean Celestin resurfaced. Some fans of the movie think Parker’s film was unfairly torpedoed, given that he was found not guilty. Perhaps audiences weren’t ready to see the leader of a bloody slave revolt as the protagonist in a movie, Parker’s supporters hypothesized. Though, as a Virginia native where 19th-century rebels are still revered, the filmmaker made a good case for why Turner belonged on-screen.
“This country was built on rebellion,” he said during that same interview. “So when we talk about American heroes, people that fought against an oppressive force, I think that it’s a no-brainer that Nat Turner exists in that conversation.”
“Hidden Figures” came into theaters with a lot less baggage, and it’s being widely celebrated, with Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations.
The movie is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, Va., the daughter of a NASA scientist. Unlike Parker with his subject, Shetterly was fully aware of the black women who helped launch astronauts into space. What came as a shock was how few people outside of her community knew the story. So she brought the extraordinary tale to the masses — about black women working in a technical field in the Jim Crow South. Even as these women helped guide John Glenn back to Earth, they had to use separate bathrooms from their white counterparts and were required to sit at a table in the cafeteria with a sign that read “colored.” One of the women stole the sign — and every sign that materialized afterward — until, finally, the notices stopped appearing.
“Hidden Figures” made it to the screen with the help of musician Pharrell Williams, originally from Virginia Beach. He produced the movie and co-wrote the score, and part of what inspired him to get involved was where the story took place.
“We want those kinds of stories that come from there to show, man, people have been doing amazing things all along,” he said. “So what can’t you do, young man? What can’t you do, young woman? You can do anything you want.”
Back at the historical society in Caroline County, Wayne Brooks is reminiscing about the past. He has a collection of tattered old issues of the Caroline Progress spread out in front of him, with headlines both sensational — “Sheriff Brooks Solves Rape-Slaying, Clears Up Four Unsolved Murders” — and mundane, such as “Oyster Supper, 5:30-8:30 Fri., At Methodist Church.”
He believes that Caroline County was exceptional in some ways. Race relations tended to be good. There wasn’t a Ku Klux Klan presence or racial violence, which was the case in some neighboring areas.
But the villain at the center of “Loving” was not just any county sheriff hounding a quiet couple — his name was Garnett Brooks, and he was Wayne Brooks’s cousin. Brooks, who had just seen the movie the night before at the Richmond premiere, said he thought the portrayal was fair, even if he believed his cousin may have been doing someone else’s bidding.
It may not be as straightforward as the movie makes it seem. It’s just another complicated story from a complicated state.