In, of all places, San Francisco, I was surprised to walk into a nearly empty Friday-night showing of a movie with the tagline “All love is created equal.” An older black man was the only other person in the single auditorium playing the film “Loving” when my girlfriend and I walked into the theater. “Looks like we get it all to ourselves,” he said as we sat down.
More people entered as the previews rolled, but it never got close to a packed house. This amazed me, since the subject—the story of the real-life and aptly named Richard and Mildred Loving—seems well suited for the Age of Obergefell. But this drama of interracial romance and the successful Supreme Court battle, Loving v. Virginia, that struck down anti-miscegenation laws, has only drawn in $7.4 million at the box office (it had a $9 million budget).
The number is respectable, but not what you might expect for a film that seems to tap into, if not outright mainline, the pulsing artery of twenty-first-century America. Sexual taboo and race relations: what could be more relevant? So why did so few people care?
There was an even bigger surprise in store once the movie played. Going in, I’d assumed that it would just be a progressive morality play. #LoveWins—that sort of thing. The marketing efforts seemed to point in that direction. But the film was entirely devoid of pious sermons.
This might explain the bulk of critics’ complaints, who whined that “Loving” is “timid,” “a missed opportunity,” and “only scratches the surface.” The lack of sermons, however, doesn’t mean “Loving” is apolitical. I found that “Loving” presents a deeply conservative vision of a good human life.
A Man’s Home, His Castle
Take, for example, one of the film’s central preoccupations, alongside race and family: not love, the law, the civil rights movement, or class (which does play a large part), but land. From the beginning of the film and on through to the end, ancestral land anchors the action.
For example, in one of the opening scenes, Joel Edgerton, who offers a wonderful, growling, and tight-lipped performance as Richard Loving, guides the luminous star of the film, Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving, out into an emerald green country field. He gestures to the empty field and asks her what she thinks. Mildred looks at him quizzically.
“I bought it,” he says, grinning. “This whole acre.”
“I’m goin’ build you a house,” Richard says in a gravelly voice. An impish grin plays out on his face. “Right here. Our house.”
Yet interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia when the real-life Richard and Mildred married in 1958. So they married in Washington DC, but shortly thereafter were arrested in bed in the middle of the night. They managed to avoid prison by agreeing not to return to Virginia, their family home, together for 25 years.
Rather than a triumphal entry into the land of freedom, in the film the Lovings’ arrival into the dirty, noisy, and crowded inner city of Washington DC. is heartbreaking. They might have been poor back in Virginia, but they did have their families, and they had the pastoral landscapes and open skies of their home state. In DC, they have freedom, of a sort, and they have each other, but they are profoundly bereft. Besides a few twisted trees, everything is concrete.
Loyalty to Family Traditions
And Mildred is pregnant. One night, worrying in bed, she tells Richard that she had always imagined Richard’s mother, a midwife, delivering the baby. Richard accepts her worry as a challenge, and in violation of the law, they drive back to Virginia and induce labor.
It is another instance of the film’s love for the old and inherited. I’m sure all of the data on maternal health and infant mortality would support giving birth in a hospital, especially one in a major metropolitan area like Washington DC, rather than in a ramshackle house in rural Virginia, where the nearest doctor is sure to be miles away. But this is the way their families give birth, how women in their community give birth. Their reasoning is not utilitarian or data-driven. It’s not progressive. It’s rooted in their loyalty to their family’s and community’s tradition.
They raise multiple children in DC until their son is hit by a car. Fortunately, he is not seriously hurt, but the scare prompts Mildred to pack the bags. They family is moving back to Virginia, she declares, come what may.
Richard secures a house and barn on a property far from the prying eyes of unsympathetic neighbors. Finally, we the audience can breathe a sigh of relief along with the Lovings. They’re together, and they’re back on their land.
Cherishing the Right to Self-Defense
The relief doesn’t last long. After being threatened at work because of his and his wife’s appearance in Life magazine, Richard finds a car tailing him on the drive home. On the approach to his house, he loses the follower, but wastes no time in sending the kids, who are happily playing outside, into the house. Richard grabs his gun and sends his son to alert a friend to come lend some extra firepower.
The threat never materializes. Perhaps the car hadn’t been following him after all. But the sequence is a potent reminder of the role that the Second Amendment has played in protecting unpopular civil rights. It wasn’t just Richard Loving.
Take Condoleezza Rice. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and knew two of the four girls who died in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. She writes that, “after the first explosion, Daddy just went outside and sat on the porch with his gun on his lap. He sat there all night looking for white night riders. Eventually Daddy & the men of the neighborhood formed a watch…Because of this experience, I’m a fierce defender of the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms. Had my father and his neighbors registered their weapons, Bull Connor surely would have confiscated them or worse.”
Rice’s father was king of his little Birmingham castle, and so was Richard Loving. Even though the law of the land and the culture of the South saw Rice as inferior and Loving as a race-traitor, both of them still benefitted from the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms. It’s something the Left ought to keep in mind, especially when they consider the genesis of the modern gun control movement: whites in California who wanted to disarm the Black Panther Party.
We Want to Be Home, Not Celebrities
Unlike the Black Panthers, however, Richard and Mildred Loving weren’t interested in a campaign for civil rights. The film portrays Richard as especially suspicious of the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who initially takes their case. The lawyer is baffled when Richard betrays indifference to setting Supreme Court precedent. Richard would prefer if they could just quietly settle the issue with the judge back in Virginia. When the case finally does get to the highest court in the land, the Lovings decline to attend oral arguments.
Richard has much more in common with the poor, rural black men in his town than he does with the white lawyers in DC. To the Lovings, even the white sheriff who arrests them is a foreigner. The sheriff considers Richard country trash, and in need of education on the genetic differences of the races. After all, Richard’s identity is rooted not in his race, but in the land. He drinks, drag races, and finally builds his house with other (white and black) rural folk.
That is the real moment of triumph, not the announcement of the Supreme Court victory. That scene is anti-climactic—cameras flash at Richard and Mildred as they hold each other, foreheads pressed together, sitting in silence, smiling. Getting approval for their marriage isn’t the real point. If it were, they could just stay in DC. The triumph of the film comes when they can live in peace, on their ancestral land, near their family, free to be midwives and bricklayers.
An Embodied Model of Conservatism
Richard Loving died less than a decade after the landmark Supreme Court case that bears his name, killed by a drunk driver. Mildred never remarried, and she stayed in the home Richard built for her and their children. She was a picture of fidelity.
I can see why some critics thought “Loving” wasted an opportunity to make good on its progressive potential. It’s certainly not what we might expect from a twenty-first-century story of forbidden love. But the film defies easy political categorization. While it’s certainly not progressive, neither does it map right onto the platform of the Republican Party.
After all, American conservatism has failed to articulate an ideal of social solidarity in which we rely on family, community, and small farms. Thomas Jefferson’s nascent hope for a citizenry of virtuous yeoman farmers perished in utero, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent musical so enthusiastically chronicles. So perhaps Loving points us toward a renewed conservatism, one with a destination beyond Donald Trump Thug Life memes.
At such a destination Richard and Mildred Loving lived gracefully, with quiet virtue and humility, faithful to the land and to family tradition, skeptical of publicity, and armed with a shotgun, just in case.