The American Interracial Family Film: Loving

Loving (Nicols, USA, 2016) explores the relationship between mixed-race Mildred (Ruth Negga) and white Richard (Joel Edgerton), as they fall in love, fall pregnant, get married and get convicted for, as Life magazine put it in their 1966 feature on the couple, the crime of being married.

While legally designated black according to the one-drop rule, Mildred Jeter was of African American, European and Native American descent, and her Washington DC marriage to Richard was illegal in their home state of Virginia.[1] Having been arrested, held in custody and forced to either go to jail or into exile, the couple contacted the ACLU. Their case ended up in the Supreme Court, and the subsequent 1967 ruling resulted in the dismantling of the remaining anti-miscegenation laws.

The melodrama focuses on their personal lives, as they attempt to live a normal life in an abnormal situation. The quiet way in which this extraordinary story is told positions them as reluctant heroes, a couple simply trying to raise a family. Their experiences of everyday racism are mooted, as they face covert discrimination resulting in hostile stares, unspoken threats and intimidation. The only explicit racism comes from the state, hence the macro-aggressions of the court are matched by the micro-aggressions of their community. Critics have queried Nichols’ choice, yet the slow burn of constant, underlying racial tension belies their position as prisoners of a system which denies their autonomy. Their home is large, and surrounded by acres of open fields, yet they are constantly surveilled, not just by the state but by their own community who operate a kind of cultural guard-duty on their behaviour. With the exception of their families, no one can be trusted. Their home is politicised by their transgression as an interracial couple; their private space is monitored by state and social systems. Hence the actors’ restrained performances – they can only survive by living quietly and keeping to themselves. While this is shown in part to be a happy state for two reserved people, very much in love – as well as for their three carefree children – it is also restrictive and dehumanising.

In 1958, the year the Lovings married, a Gallup poll showed that approval among Americans for black/white interracial marriages was just 4%. By contrast in 2013, approval was at 87%. So, Loving‘s discourse shifts from a 1950s notion of ‘hybrid degenerates’ to a contemporary interest in ‘post-millenial multiracial families’; the family becomes emblematic of the hope for a unified America central to civil rights discourse. Yet the civil rights movement is only briefly glimpsed on background TV sets in the film, and seems secondary to their everyday needs. Likewise the court’s arguments – regarding racial mixture as unlawful according to both state and Christian doctrine, as well as counter arguments that the ban on interracial marriage stems from the era of slavery and was designed to protect white-owned property – are seen only at the start and end of the film. And in fact it is white Richard, rather than mixed-race Mildred, who experiences the most racism.[3] As such, the film appears somewhat removed from the socio-political history of the Lovings’ period, and more applicable to broader contemporary discourses regarding marriage equality.

Thus, as Nishime (2014) notes, while mixed people onscreen embody racial difference, films often avoid addressing that difference overtly in order to use them as signifiers of the potential for cross-cultural bridging, understanding and healing. Despite adopting this approach, the film is a landmark in American mixed cinema; it normalizes the interracial family, showing pregnancies, births, family meals, disagreements, laughter and so on. Loving rehumanises the interracial family, reducing the border between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

[1] Multiracial spaces known as ‘racial islands’ formed a subculture of isolated, rural, mixed-race communities existing on the margins of American society (see Frazier, 1973). Mildred and Richard Loving grew up in one such community – the hill country around Caroline County, north of Richmond in Virginia – where blacks and whites mixed relatively freely. These spaces produced the racial grouping thought to be distinct to America in the 1930s, ‘The North American colored’ (a group derived from interracial relations between African Bantus and Northwestern Europeans). Naomi Zack notes that this race emerged over several centuries and is ‘coextensive with the group consisting of all designated black individuals in the United States. By 1966, at least one study concluded that this group… contains 30 percent of the genes contained in the designated white population’ (1993, p. 35).

[3] Richard’s whiteness is questioned at two key points; he is referred to as being racially confused due to his father working for a black man, and culturally mixed due to his black kin. He is subject to hostility from white and black men, who see him as a traitor/fetishist, and is forced to borrow a rifle to protect his family.

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