And help the ACLU while you’re at it
Acts of civil disobedience and fiery speeches helped ignite the civil rights movement of the ’60s. But a much quieter battle for equality began in 1958, when interracial couple Richard Loving and Mildred Delores Jeter married in Washington, D.C., to avoid Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which outlawed marriages between whites and nonwhites. The couple’s love and defiance ultimately took them to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled the Virginia anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional.
This battle is detailed in Focus Feature’s recent Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film Loving. Directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is steeped in rural quietude, with the Lovings simply trying to exist and often watching the American Civil Liberties Union fight from afar. The filmmakers will be auctioning off various experiences, film props, and concert tickets throughout the month of February to help raise money that will be donated to the ACLU of Southern California. The We Stand for Love fundraiser coincides with both Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Their case was so strong because of the sincerity of the love they felt for one another.[/quote]
For his part, Nichols is offering either an in-person or Skype mentoring session. Other items up for bid included two tickets to the closing night of Oh Hello On Broadway, starring Nick Kroll (who plays ACLU lawyer Bernard Cohen in Loving). Still up for grabs are a Loving film package that includes an authentic frame print of Richard and Mildred’s Life magazine shoot by photographer Grey Villet, movie props, and a signed poster. Focus Features is also offering a Loving Date Night package that includes two tickets to a Ben Lee concert and a post-show meet and greet.
Nichols, who spoke with GOOD about the Lovings’ history and We Stand for Love, says he was approached to direct Loving back in 2012. The producers wanted to turn Nancy Buirski’s 2011 HBO documentary The Loving Story—which leaned heavily on filmmaker Hope Ryden’s archival footage and Life magazine photos of the couple—into a feature film. Like many people, Nichols hadn’t heard about the Lovings’ court battles.
“I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and went to Little Rock Central High, which was at center of the desegregation crisis in 1957, and I graduated in 1997,” Nichols says. “That year they were building a museum and a lot of our assemblies were about the history and movement … So, I just felt like I paid attention, that I had a fair grounding in civil rights history, and to not know about this particular case floored me, especially in 2012 when we’re in the middle of the marriage equality battle.”
Despite being a latecomer to the story, Nichols dove into the backstory. After seeing Buirski’s documentary, as well as Ryden’s archival footage and the Life photographs, he could understand how the two fell in love. He also could fathom how they could fight for that love all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Nichols felt that his task as a filmmaker was to try to give Richard and Mildred life through the actors and represent them faithfully. Of course, he knew that Loving would be his cinematic rendition of the couple’s love and legal battles, but he wanted the film to hit as close to the mark of reality as possible.
“The real task at hand is to make the story as human as possible,” says Nichols. “If you pursue an honest portrayal of Richard and Mildred Loving, you will be a telling story that is undeniably apolitical and not pursuing an agenda, but having the effect of moving the needle in terms of the civil and political conversation.”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]It’s very hard to argue with someone who thinks you shouldn’t exist in the first place. The only way to do this is to just live your life.[/quote]
As Nichols sees it, Richard and Mildred’s lives had an effect on these conversations, but their lives were not a representation of them. They didn’t join picket lines or otherwise become involved in the civil rights movement. They were instead conscientious objectors of the way laws were being applied to their life. And from their perspective, says Nichols, their existence was being put on trial.
“People didn’t like the fact that they existed, and it’s very hard to argue with someone who thinks you shouldn’t exist in the first place,” Nichols says. “The only way to do this is to just live your life, and that was their form of protest.”
“You have to think as a filmmaker and a storyteller, you want to show the audience something they’ve never seen before,” he adds. “You never want to show something where they’re so far ahead of you in terms of where you’re taking it.”
Which is why Nichols avoided a courtroom drama. It would have meant he was focusing on something that wasn’t the Loving’s reality—and also attaching an agenda to it.
“The more pointed you make your social commentary inside the framework of the film, the weaker you make it,” Nichols observes. “Their point, I think, was so strong because of the sincerity of the love they felt for one another. I think had they been trying to make us change our opinion, had they been trying to reach out and rattle our cages, then I think you can start to argue the sincerity of their love.”
“They didn’t go to the Supreme Court in person so let me be the one to shoulder the burden of the fact that a lot of people might find this film undramatic or slow or boring or not enough,” he adds. “But the one thing I won’t do is betray the essence of what Richard and Mildred were.”
As for Focus Features’ auction, Nichols is happy to connect Richard and Mildred’s story to the present-day ACLU, which is already fighting courtroom battles in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. While this fundraising effort isn’t the first to benefit the ACLU in the last few months, it is no doubt a very visible endorsement of the ACLU’s work.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Without the ACLU’s funding, talent, knowledge, and the power of its people, the Lovings could never exist.[/quote]
“The ACLU, in an ultimate way, got this case through the gauntlet and all the way to the Supreme Court,” says Nichols. “I think without their funding, talent, knowledge, and the power of its people, the Lovings could never exist. There really is no other organization that I know of that is so out in front of civil rights issues … and we have to support them.”