Media portrayals of Washington, DC tend to focus on the worst stereotypes and characterizations: corruption, political intrigue, and incompetence. The rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump reveal that a large swath of the public sees Washington as an entrenched enemy to be taken down.
So it was refreshing to see our city portrayed as both a haven and a symbol of justice in the movie Loving, screened at Washington Ideas Week. The film’s title is the first clue that Loving is far more than a legal drama about an interracial marriage. Instead, the film is much more of a love story that happens to include a legal battle. Starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, the eponymous film depicts their attempt to simply be married without fear of imprisonment or exile.
For those of us born after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it is hard to imagine a world in which interracial marriage could be a crime. In 1958, Richard, a white man and Mildred, an African-American/Rappahannock woman were married in Caroline County, Virginia. This marriage is an offense, we come to learn, that is punishable by imprisonment or exile. In fact, an interracial marriage could not even be performed in the state–the Lovings instead drive to DC in order to be married by a justice of the peace. Shortly after they return home, they are arrested in the middle of the night. Richard is bailed out the next day, but not permitted to bail out his wife. When they have their day in court, their lawyer advises them to plead guilty and take a deal which would exile them from Virginia for 25 years. Neither are permitted to be in the state at the same time. They then move to DC, a far cry from their pastoral, ancestral roots.
Though the city is a haven from the hostility in Virginia, after several years of life in a crowded house in the city, Mildred writes to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He refers her case to the ACLU and it is taken up by Bernard Cohen, played by Nick Kroll of The League and Parks and Recreation fame. Cohen’s advice is to return to Virginia and get arrested so that their case can be reopened and retried. The Lovings decline.
But life in the city proves to be too much for the family. After their second son, Donald, is hit by a car while playing in the street, the Lovings return to Virginia under the cover of night. They eventually find a secluded place in King and Queen County, though Richard is constantly on edge that they will be arrested again, or even attacked. Eventually they reach back out to Cohen and the rest is literally history.
It’s hard to fathom just how much the world has changed in a relatively short period of time. The landmark case, Loving v. Virginia, which gave not only Richard and Mildred the right to be married, but also countless other couples, was decided only 49 years ago. To put this time frame in focus, if they had stayed in exile for 25 years and not fought against the law, it would have have been 1983 before they could return. That would have been two years after I was born.
In an era marked by cynicism toward Washington, Loving harkens back to a time in which injustice was answered by the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The film takes the stereotypical DC procedural, political, and legal drama and reduces it back to a human scale–the people for whom our government is by and for.
Loving opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, November 4, 2016.