Why the movie Loving isn’t loving at all.
By Cherri F.
On a recent flight, I reluctantly watched the movie Loving starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. I knew that critics raved about it but I had to weigh that against my awareness of mainstream media’s tendency to screw up Black women’s images in films. Things are certainly improving but old habits die hard. But I gave it a shot because Loving v. Virginia is a landmark case and because I enjoy seeing Black female leads.
However, one of the first things that stood out to me as odd about the film was its lack of well-known actors. This is the story of a landmark case that impacted the demographics of the entire country yet none of the actors were recognizable household names. Hollywood does biographical films all the time and there’s at least one well-known star attached to the project: Philadelphia (which was inspired by the case of Geoffrey Bowers) featured Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks; Erin Brockovich featured Julia Roberts; A Beautiful Mind featured Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris; The Social Network featured Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg; The Wolf of Wall Street featured Leonardo DiCaprio; the recent film Sully about US Airways Flight 1549 featured Tom Hanks as Captain Sully; and Patriot’s Day, about the Boston Marathon bombing, featured Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon. It stands to reason that Loving should have had at least one popular actor featured in the film. Why was this story being treated differently?
I’ve concluded that this was done to ensure the film’s success. Black American female-White American male romantic pairing on the big screen is still very taboo. It is not portrayed very often unless it’s a tragic “pain porn” story like Monster’s Ball or a story of a passionate but passing fling, like in The Bodyguard. Something New, featuring Sanaa Lathan, was probably the closest Hollywood came to portraying Black women with White men in a relatively normal light on the big screen. However, that film was not without its flaws. I agree with film critic Ruth Stein’s thoughts on Something New when she said: “The trouble with the movie is that it sometimes seems at odds with itself, vacillating between a realistic presentation of the obstacles black professional women face finding a suitable mate and another bit of Hollywood fluff where their skin color is glossed over.” ( ) In other words, it’s all good if all the “racial stuff” can be avoided. But race can’t be completely avoided in the story of an American interracial couple dealing with racism so one way to keep it “light” is to have largely unrecognizable actors portray them. For a variety of reasons like racism, sexism, misogynoir and staunch endogamous beliefs, folks are simply not comfortable seeing Black American women and White American men together in affectionate, respectful and stable relationships. Unfamiliar faces like Negga and Edgerton created the comfortable distance necessary to garner a warm reception from mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, recognizable actors portraying the Lovings would have likely been too close for comfort for many.
Besides the casting decision, I found the portrayal of Richard and Mildred to be off-putting. Mildred was portrayed as docile and child-like as if she could not make a decision without someone else’s approval. The film did not do a good job conveying Mildred’s personality or feelings and instead made her seem like a one-dimensional, doe-eyed woman. And Richard came off like a caveman, grunting his way through most of the dialogue without displaying much emotion. He is, however, portrayed as a hardworking man who is committed to providing for Mildred, as he can be seen up late at night sketching blueprints for the house he wants to build for them. But one of the strangest aspects about Richard Loving in the film is that he appeared cut off from the surrounding White society. He has no close White friends or family members and only associated with Black men and Mildred’s side of the family. The only White family member he engages within the movie is his mother but the dialogue between them was curt and their relationship appeared strained, presumably due to his marrying Mildred.
The only interactions Richard had with other White people in the film were all antagonistic and they mostly involved White people who occupied a higher level than Richard on the social pecking order, such as judges, lawyers, and officials. Throughout the film, White people often said or did disrespectful things to Richard yet he is never visibly hurt or angered by the comments and we never see him checking anyone’s disrespect. He just kind of sticks his tail between his legs, responding like a child reprimanded by adults. There was certainly no Alpha White Man-Savior tropes here! I guess Hollywood ran out that day. On the contrary, we got a passive and timid White man. Frankly, it was demeaning and awkward to watch. This portrayal of Richard Loving is even evident in the promo ad, which has him nestled in Mildred’s arms like a sleeping child while she looks off into the distance looking like a forlorn and uncertain mother-figure. Turning Black women into mother-figures is a double-edged sword. While mother figures command a certain degree of respect in society, for Black women, this imagery can harken back to the mammy figure of the happily overburdened Black woman who exists solely to soothe and comfort White people.
This promo ad doesn’t jive with photos of the actual couple who seemed lively, playful and rather confident in their union with no evidence of an infantilized Richard or a sorrowful Mildred.
Besides a less than appealing portrayal of Richard and Mildred, the dialogue between them wasn’t particularly dynamic. It was dull and did little to make them feel like an average relatable couple going through a trying time together. Interestingly, there was heavier dialogue between them and the supporting characters than with each other or their own children, who were presented more like nameless props than like central family members. The director, Jeff Nichols, said he drew inspiration from his own marriage to help him convey the Loving’s commitment to each other. Yet, there was no substantive dialogue about racism between Richard or Mildred. It’s hard to convey commitment if there’s no conversation about the issue that is actually testing their commitment to each other.
Loving was more disappointing than I anticipated. I knew very little about the couple at the beginning of the film and knew just as little about them by the end of it. I found myself waiting for climatic moments that never came. There were relevant topics ripe for exploration, like miscegenation or navigating biracial identity, that the film simply glossed over or completely ignored and many missed opportunities to capitalize off the conflict in order to create a more dynamic and compelling story. To me, Loving was a continuation of Hollywood’s tendency to portray Black women’s interracial relationships as dysfunctional and abnormal but rarely are they portrayed as stable and relatable. It’s just another reminder of the need for Black women to continue to tell their own stories.