In the month since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — and really, in the year leading up to the election — members of the white working-class, especially men, have been subject to intense analysis. And the way everyone who doesn’t fall into that category reacts to working-class white men has been under scrutiny as well. The implications for these conversations are enormous: the priorities of our political parties, the conduct of our civic discourse and the shape of our public policy will all be affected by the answers we arrive at.
Which is why it was a relief last week to watch “Loving,” Jeff Nichols’s intimate film about Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, whose marriage and the way the state of Virginia punished them for it became the center of the Supreme Court case that struck down the nation’s miscegenation laws. After all the bitterness of our post-election debate, and the distance of analysis, it was deeply affecting to simply spend time with the Lovings, and to watch a movie that defies efforts to force all working-class white men into a single deified or reviled mold.
It would be easy to treat Richard Loving like an archetype. He lays bricks and cinder blocks for a living, heading off to work each day with a paint-spattered level and a metal lunch box. During his free time, he tinkers with cars and races them with Mildred’s brother and their friends. When Mildred gets pregnant unexpectedly, he’s quietly delighted, and he does the right thing, proposing to her on an acre of land where he intends to build her a house, and driving her and her father to Washington, D.C., so they can be married.
But because Richard is white and Mildred is black, the simple fact of his dedication is unsettling to his neighbors, unnerving to their families and ultimately the edifice that brings the legal foundation for a certain strain of racism down in one generation and — given Loving v. Virginia‘s impact on Obergefell v. Hodges — a major barrier to gay equality in another.
“Lord. That man might be crazy,” Mildred’s sister tells Mildred when she learns that Richard has proposed. And that’s one of the gentler reactions the couple gets as they marry and work to preserve their family life. Both black and white Virginians look askance at Richard and Mildred as they shop for groceries or spend time together on the race track. One of their neighbors tips off the police that they’re living together. When the cops raid the Lovings’ home late at night, Richard tries to defend the pair by pointing to their marriage license, which only gets them arrested for “Residing as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth,” a charge that’s obscene, given that the only disturbances to anybody’s peace are caused by the police themselves.
These charges are intended to punish Mildred’s transgression in marrying a white man. But the object of the sharpest anger aimed at the Lovings in the movie is Richard’s perceived racial treachery.
Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), who arrests the Lovings first in their home, and again when they return so Richard’s mother, a midwife, can deliver their first child, is particularly enraged. The first time, he calls Richard “boy” in a bit of racial demotion, and observes “Your daddy worked for a n—–, didn’t he? Running timber…. Blood doesn’t know what it wants to be.” Though Richard is bailed out of jail quickly, the cops won’t let him pay to have Mildred released, an act intended to force Richard to choose between his race and his wife. And when Brooks catches Richard back in Virginia after the couple were banned from the state as part of their plea deal, Brooks threatens him, telling him “Boy, I will split your head into white meat and arrest every soul in that house,” if he doesn’t produce Mildred, who has just given birth.
Richard’s commitment to Mildred means a reckoning with the unfairnesses of the world he could have avoided had he loved and married someone white, and made his life among her family. “That can’t be right,” he says, aghast, when told he can’t return to the land he loves for a quarter-century. The newness of this knowledge, and the fact that he keeps choosing his difficulty, bewilders some of his black friends. “Every n—– in here wishes he was you,” one of his car-racing friends tells him in a bar one night. “You got a fix…. All you got to do is divorce her.”
Trying to interpret Richard Loving through the framework of contemporary political discourse about working-class white men quickly reveals how insufficient that discourse is.
He’s not driven by racial resentments; in fact, the great battle of his life is defined by his quiet, unshakable commitment to cross-racial solidarity. Though he isn’t always comfortable with his wife’s willingness to be interviewed and photographed, Richard isn’t emasculated by the public voice that Mildred discovers. Instead, the one thing that shames him is the cruelty of the law that means he can’t guarantee that his wife won’t ever again be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and threatened with jail. “I can take care of you,” Richard tells her, weeping, when he comes home drunk and ashamed from the conversation where a friend suggested he divorce her. The people forcing Richard to make a choice between racial progress and building a home on the rural land he loves aren’t liberals; they’re conservative Southern lawmakers trying to preserve white supremacy.
And though Richard doesn’t get along with Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who takes the family’s case, he doesn’t burn with rage when they talk past each other. In one scene toward the end of the movie, Cohen is confused when the Lovings turn down a chance to go to the Supreme Court hearing on their case, because Cohen has told them that Virginia will try to portray their children as unnatural and to illegitimate them. What Cohen sees as the chance of a lifetime, to be present at the potential making of history, is an affront to the Lovings’ dignity. That misunderstanding doesn’t result in a welter of resentment and cultural backlash: a relationship like this one is a process, not a single moment. And Cohen is the only person who can deliver a message Richard wants the Supreme Court to hear: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”
Marriage, the judge who marries Richard and Mildred tells them, is an institution “made honorable by faithful couples who are committed to each other for life.” “Loving” is a movie about how those “faithful couples” can prove to look different than anyone expects. And Edgerton’s marvelous, sensitive performance as Richard Loving is a timely reminder that working-class white men and their interests aren’t always easy to categorize or convenient for our political narratives.