Imagine a challenge so daunting that, even if you were to lose everything, you would still cling to faith in the future for the United States. Too soon?
Take heart, America. Better yet, take Loving, a powerful yet gentle film that reminds us how far we've come while cautioning how far we still have to go. There is no fire nor brimstone in Loving's sermon—it is the simplest of love stories, yet its testament rings loud and strong, making it not just essential viewing for any discerning moviegoer, but also the perfect elixir for this moment in our history, when we question our national destiny.
On June 2, 1958, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was enjoying a relatively peaceful second term in the White House, moviegoers were having a grand ol' time guffawing at Andy Griffith in No Time for Sergeants and much of the nation was listening to The Everly Brothers sing "All I Have to Do Is Dream" on the radio. Also on that day, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were married in Washington, D.C. A few weeks later, local lawmen opened the bedroom door of the couple's modest home in Central Point, Va.
Shining a flashlight in their faces, Caroline County Sheriff Garnett Brooks asked, "What are you doing in bed with this lady?"
Richard Loving pointed to a framed marriage certificate hanging on the bedroom wall as Mildred said, "I'm his wife."
"Not here you're not," said Brooks, placing the Lovings in handcuffs and transporting them to the county jail. Richard and Mildred Loving were each sentenced to a year in prison. The reason, County Circuit Judge Leon Bazile said, was their marriage violated Virginia law: Richard was white. Mildred was black.
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red and He placed them on separate continents; and but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages," bellowed Bazile.
The judge offered the Lovings an option: Avoid prison by leaving Virginia and never returning. Therein lay the conflict at the heart of one of the most important choices in U.S. history: abide by the forced separation of two adults along racial lines, or fight against a law and dignity granted by the U.S. Constitution.
The endurance of Richard and Mildred Loving is heady stuff; but, again, I must stress how much tenderness director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols offers in his delicate telling of the Lovings' story. It is, by any measure, a love story more than a history lesson.
"I'm really nervous," Nichols told Boise Weekly moments before his film's September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "TIFF audiences are pretty famous for embracing films of importance. But this year's slate of films, my God... there's Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Denial, Jackie... I mean, to stand alongside these other films this year, wow."
Nichols was being modest. I've witnessed many audience reactions in my years at the movies: gasps, screams, belly laughs, open sobbing, you name it. I have never experienced anything quite like the final moments of Loving, when the premiere audience at TIFF—many of them with tears streaming down their cheeks—exhaled a loud, collective sigh when a grainy photograph of the real Richard and Mildred Loving filled the screen.
My guess is there will be similar sighs heard throughout America in the coming weeks as Loving is released nationwide. I'll never forget that sigh, nor this magnificent film.