Monday, November 28, 2016

Thankful for a “Loving” Decision

Thanksgiving is a holiday that encourages us to be grateful for the blessings we’ve been given. So Thanksgiving weekend seems an apt time to discuss Loving, a film that celebrates both love and political progress. I’ve long been aware of Loving v. Virginia, the case that led the Supreme Court, back in 1967, to roundly reject the notion that any state could ban marriage between persons of different races. Loving v. Virginia grew out of the prosecution of a young Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, for the crime of being married, in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He was white; she was black. They wed in nearby Washington D.C., but were pulled from their bed and jailed after they set up a household in their Virginia hometown.

Richard and Mildred were by no means rabble-rousers, nor campus intellectuals with something to prove. Rather, they had both grown up in a workaday rural enclave where blacks and whites mixed easily The Virginia countryside was a place of quiet beauty where a hard-working man like Richard (a bricklayer) could  buy a plot of land and -- with his own hands -- build a house for himself and his family. The new film, shot in the very place where a hugely pregnant Mildred was locked for days in a jail cell, conveys the simple desires of two unassuming people who will not stop loving one another, no matter what the law mandates.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the year of the Loving decision was also the year of the release of Stanley Kramer’s landmark film about interracial romance, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kramer’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, likes to say that her husband’s movie influenced the decision of the Supreme Court in the Loving case. Not so: the decision came down (on June 12, 1967) while the film was still in process of being completed. It effectively rendered moot a line in the script about how the union being contemplated by John Prentice and Joanna Drayton would be considered illegal in 17 states. Obviously, the marriage of the fictive John and Joey would be very different from that of the flesh-and-blood Richard and Mildred Loving. Their story takes place in San Francisco, where Joey, the daughter of a liberal-minded newspaper publisher played by Spencer Tracy, comes back from an Hawaiian vacation with Dr. John Prentice in tow. She (played by Katharine Houghton) is rich and beautiful. He (played by the era’s inevitable heroic black man, Sidney Poitier) is a medical doctor whose sense of mission leads him to travel the world, curing those afflicted with exotic diseases. So in marrying him, Joey will be safely removed from home-grown bigotry, and will not have to deal with “What will the neighbors think?”

 Critics of the film (and there were many) complained that Poitier’s character was impossibly noble. Kramer himself countered that the focus of his film was squarely on the way even the most progressive parents have to grapple with a grown child’s marital choice.  By making the black husband-to-be little short of sainthood, Kramer saw his film as pointing up the foolishness of using race as the overriding criterion when it comes to picking a mate. He deliberately made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner an amiable comedy of manners, populated by likable and beautiful characters. It worked: the film was a massive hit all across the nation.

Loving  is far more real, except in one respect. Lead actor Joel Edgerton is Australian, while actress Ruth Negga hails from Ethiopia and Ireland. But that’s something you’d never guess.  

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