A few days ago, as part of the Blogging While Brown conference in DC, I got to participate in a preview and discussion about the upcoming Loving movie. Ruth Negga, who stars in the leading role as Mildred Loving, also Skyped in from London to do a live interview with us.
There’s still a surprising number of people who have never heard the history of Mildred and Richard Loving, despite its significance in the Civil Rights legacy. Mildred, a black woman, and Richard, a white man, were arrested in Virginia in 1958 for being in an interracial marriage. They sued and took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, helping to strike down anti-miscegenation laws across the country.
Over the years some have questioned the significance of the Loving v. Virginia court case, but I think it’s important for us to recognize the interconnectedness of marriage and “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks) here in the United States. Marriage is more than just a trivial matter of personal and private choices. Marriage is an institution whose bricks were mortared with white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy just like all other U.S. institutions. The Lovings helped chip away at that mortar.
Black Women, Love, and Marriage
One of the most interesting aspects of this new Loving movie in 2016 is that it depicts interracial love in which the woman is black. While we might be quite accustomed to seeing the black man-nonblack woman pairing, we’re far less likely to see depictions of black women in interracial marriages. (And I intentionally use words like “love” and “marriage” as opposed to a looser term like “relationships.” I will explain why in a sec.)
Other writers have discussed why so few stories and images in Western culture feature black women as the love interest in interracial romance. For example, Brittany Slatton’s book Mythologizing Black Women (2014) concisely depicts the intense levels of misogynoir in the United States. The book illustrates how hateful narratives, stereotypes, and lies about black women are used to justify their sexual exploitation and their rejection as wives. Among these myths are ones you’ve probably heard of (perhaps some you’ve believed): black women in general are inherently less feminine/more masculine, have animalistic and uncontrollable sexuality, lack intelligence and civility, and are lazy and irresponsible.
What the book does remind us, however, is that while society doesn’t view black women as suitable marriage partners, society has always viewed black women as sex objects with whom white men (or any men) could do as they pleased. And this is why I focus on the words “love” and “marriage.” It’s not enough to have stories or see images of men lusting for black women’s bodies in a purely sexual way. We need more stories and images in which men of all races value the humanity of black women, love them, and marry them.
In Loving, rather than seeing a white man merely lust for a sexual exploit with a black woman, we see a man willing to risk it all to demonstrate his love and commitment to a black woman. He fights with and for this black woman. In a culture that still repeatedly fails to do this, a movie like Loving is refreshing and important.
The Institution of Marriage and White Supremacy
The Loving movie is also important because it reminds us how the institution of marriage was deployed to undergird white supremacy. Laws preventing interracial marriage really just applied to white people. The creators of anti-miscegenation laws couldn’t care less about the coupling of various other races and ethnic groups. The laws were purely about maintaining white domination.
Contrary to popular belief, anti-miscegenation laws weren’t created to prevent sexual contact between whites and people of other races, and it certainly wasn’t to curtail the presence of mixed-race children. This is evident by the rampant rape of black women by white men and the numerous mixed race children that resulted.
Anti-miscegenation laws were about building and protecting white wealth as well as controlling white women as the property of white men. A significant aspect of the marriage institution is combining economic assets and bearing “legitimate” or legal heirs to the family’s legacy. By making it illegal to marry black people, white society tried to guarantee that their wealth would never fall into the hands of blacks. Thus, white men could produce all the “colored” children they wanted so long as those children did not have legal right to inherit their father’s wealth. In fact, the institution of slavery and white dominance profited greatly from the sexual abuse of black women that resulted in children because more negro babies meant more “property” for slave owners.
It wasn’t until the United States ended the formal chattel slave system that authorities wanted to prevent the birth of more mixed-race children, when those children were no longer viewed in terms of their potential profit to white slaveholders but were instead viewed as symbolic threats to white supremacy. If white supremacy says that blacks, particularly black women, are subhuman, then the symbolic resonance of whites and blacks, particularly white men and black women like the Lovings, belonging to the same nuclear family shakes the foundation of white domination.
The Loving Movie 2016
While I have yet to see this latest rendition of the Lovings’ story in its entirety, I believe it’s an important story to tell, and at this point I can only hope that it’s a story well told.
Naturally, there are other issues I could bring up in relation to this film. For one, the movie doesn’t appear to alleviate the underrepresentation of dark skinned black women in leading roles, especially as love interests. This is a legitimate industry problem, but I don’t see this as a problem inherent to the movie itself (as it is in other notorious biopics). And when it comes to marriage, there’s also the issue of some groups marrying “white” in order to “whiten/lighten/improve” their blood lines or even their entire race. Again, I don’t see that as part of the Lovings’ story.
In the midst of a contentious and high stakes political season and eruptions of hateful violence, I’m hoping this movie gets the attention it deserves. I’m hoping this retelling of a significant milestone in Civil Rights history reminds us that loving is revolutionary. Love drives progress. Love fuels us in our persistent pursuit of change. Love sustains us in our ongoing struggle, our long journey to freedom.
Watch the Loving Movie Trailer: