The Problem of Silencing Racial Inequality in the Movie “Loving”

Indeed, the lack of emotion reminds audiences that we no longer have to talk about race—we live in a post-racial society where post-racialism “produces a context where race and racism are no longer seen as impacting the way that society is structured”(Acholonu, 2013, p. 215). Indeed, the absence of emotion preserves White comfort and distances one from uncomfortable emotions or any demand for self-reflexivity. Comfort preserves White audience notions of contemporary and historic racial equality and demands nothing more. Rose (2017), in an interview with Jeff Nichols about filming Loving (2016) wrote, “the 38-year-old film-maker has fashioned a lean, direct, understated storytelling approach that strips away superfluous details, especially dialogue. He describes his approach as ‘pragmatic’.” Someone who is pragmatic is one who deals with things sensibly and realistically and bases their actions on practical considerations (Pragmatic, 2018). With an uncritical eye, Loving (2016) is filmed in a sensible and realistic way—there is minimal dialogue. Furthermore the dialogue that is present within the film was apparently taken from historical accounts of what Richard and Mildred stated (e.g. sensible and realistic) (Rose, 2017).

Throughout the film, audiences are left to sit with the stares and silences between Richard and Mildred and observe the landscapes within the film—what many film critics found beautiful about the film (Dargis, 2016, Morgenstern, 2016; Tallerico, 2016). However, Newell (2014) critiques the silences around race, specifically White silence, and states, “This silence occurs because a person is lost in his or her own feelings. In other cases, silence could be a strategic effort either to avoid the appearance of being un- or underinformed or to avoid saying “the wrong thing,” the “thing” that would illustrate just how much of a problem she is. In either case, the silence is reflective of an effort to avoid vulnerability and to remain in control. This effort, of course, can be ascribed to whiteness and white privilege” (p. 122).

Throughout the film, Richard and Mildred’s silence is what director Nichols intended. Nichols intended to strip away “superfluous details” (Rose, 2017) and in his words, he wanted to make this film “about people” (Cannes Film Festival, 2016). In a 2016 Cannes Film Festival interview with Nichols, and the actors who played Richard and Mildred Loving, Nichols stated in response to a question about his film speaking to today’s society: “I think the trick is though when we talk about these things, people seem to get entrenched in their belief systems and the great thing about the performance that these guys gave and the story that Richard and Mildred provided us is so personal that kind of it takes all that stuff away, strips it away, and makes it about people.” As someone reading Loving using a CRT lens, I have a hard time taking Nichol’s intention behind stripping away emotion and making Loving a film about people and not seeing this as an intention to not discomfort White audiences. Indeed, I read Nichols’ quote as epitomizing the goal of the film: to be a movie about race, but not about race. Indeed, this is the goal of Whiteness: to continue to sustain itself (locally, national, globally) through ambiguity (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995).

Whiteness is everywhere but nowhere at the same time. It is pervasive, omnipresent, and universal (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995). Indeed, as Nakayama and Krizek (1995) explain, “the universality of whiteness resides in its already defined position as everything” (p. 293). Nichols strategically uses this ambiguity to avoid talking about race, even though ironically this is a story about race, and thus the film perpetuates post-racial ideology. Overall, Loving becomes a story that leaves audiences hearts warm, full of hope, and the belief that we live in a post-racial society where race no longer matters. Colorblindness. Post-racial ideology and colorblindness are often conflated, but indeed are different. On the one hand, colorblindness is associated with racial enlightenment where the color of a persons’ skin is no longer seen and instead, we are judged on our merit (Crenshaw, 2011). On the other hand, post-racial ideology “produces a context where race and racism are no longer seen as impacting the way that society is structured, which naturalizes the racial disparities and inequitable conditions that exist…” (Acholonu, 2013, p. 215).

Doane and Bonilla-Silva (2003) contend that “color-blind ideology plays an important role in maintaining white hegemony” (p. 13). Ultimately, what continues to be ignored in color-blind ideology is the ongoing institutional and systematic social, political, and economic inequality prevalent in U.S. society and therefore, a color-blind U.S. society is not one where racial inequality has been eradicated, but rather one where the discourse of race is not welcomed (Doane & Bonilla-Silva, 2003). In the case of Loving (2016), a movie about a court decision that was absolutely about race, the film ultimately produces a discourse that perpetuates colorblindness. Through a critical textual analysis of Loving, Richard Lovings’ character epitomizes colorblind ideology, which easily leads into Whiteness as Property, which will be addressed in the subsequent section.

In Loving (2016) we see Richard who appears to just want to love his wife. Loving (2016), though acclaimed for depicting Richard and Mildred Loving as they were in real life, produces a discourse which posits that U.S. society as colorblind. For example, Richard is portrayed as a working-class White male and is characterized by Phil Hirschkop’s character in the film as “redneck” (Nichols, 2015). Someone who is considered “redneck” is stereotyped as “racist, hot-headed, too physical, violent, uncouth, loud, mean, undereducated—and proud of it” (Facing History, 2018). However, we see Richard’s character as opposite. He is quiet, appears to be level-headed due to his lack of emotion, humble, and kind, and has immersed himself with the Black community. Richard’s romantic and intimate relationship with Mildred, a biracial Black and Rappahannock woman (Elle, 2016), a demonstration of Richard’s colorblindness. Richard is not like other “rednecks.” He has Black friends and loves a woman who others identify as Black.

To audiences, Richard does not see color. Instead, Richard judges individuals on merit and the content of their character as expressed in his relationships with Black characters in the film. Throughout the film we see several characters in supporting roles who are not colorblind: Sherriff Brooks, Richard’s friend, Virgil, Percy, and Raymond, Richard’s mother Lola, Mildred’s sister, Garnet, as well as characters such as the grocery store clerk and on-lookers who disapprove of Richard and Mildred’s union. All these folks see color and remind Richard of his positionality and the position of Black folks around him. However, as readers will see in the next section, it is Richard’s reactions to these reminders of his status as a White man as well as his lack of self-reflexivity that perpetuates Whiteness as Property. Whiteness as Property – “Tell the court I love my wife” According to Harris (1995) Whiteness as property was established through the “hyperexploitation of black labor [and] was accomplished by treating black people themselves as objects of property. Race and property were thus conflated by establishing a form of property contingent on race” (p. 278).

According to Hiraldo (2010), “This historic system of ownership and the reverberations from it further reinforce and perpetuate the system of White supremacy because only White individuals can benefit from it” (p. 55). In the case of Loving, Richard maintains his power as a White male—Richard and Mildred’s matrimonial union signifies no change in power within social structures (Gaines & Leaver, 2002). Indeed, White heterosexual men have always been the benefactors of U.S. racial hierarchies (Gaines & Leaver, 2002). In the film Loving we see Richard as a hard-working brick-layer who is depicted as romantically in love with Mildred and who wanted to do the right thing by marrying Mildred after finding out she was pregnant. In the film, Richard decides to take Mildred up to Washington, D.C. to get married, knowing Virginia laws did not allow interracial marriage. As they return to Virginia, life for Richard and Mildred continue as usual.

We see no change in Richard’s social, economic, or political circumstances, let alone any racial enlightenment. From the onset of the film, we see Richard crossing the color-line (DuBois, 1903): his best friends are Black, Richard and Mildred attend parties where folks are predominately Black and is in an intimate relationship with a woman who is biracial but is identified by others as Black. Furthermore, Richard sets up residence in Mildred’s family’s home and integrates himself with Mildred’s immediate and extended family. Yancy (2015) describes Sullivan’s (2014) concept of White ontological expansion as when White folks tend “to see all spaces—physical, cultural, and otherwise—as available for their legitimate inhabitation” (p. xx). In other words, White ontological expansion can be understood as White folks believing all spaces can be propertied by them—White men are the subject while people and places being occupied are objectified.

More important, when Richard is confronted from other characters in the film about his positionality—his White identity—his responses are either one-worded sentences, shrugs, or smiles, and can see read as ignorant. This is exemplified through a scene toward the end of the film between Richard and his friend Virgil, who says: [Virgil:] What you got. You just made it too hard now. See you think I’m crazy but you know what hard is now don’t you? [Richard:] Yeah. [Virgil:] “You white Richard. You think you like a black man but you white. You hang ‘round all these black folks but when you go to work you still white. But not now. Now you know what it’s like. You Black now aren’t you? You damn fool.” In this scene, we see Virgil exposing Richard’s ignorance and colorblindness. It is almost as if Virgil is demanding that Richard see his positionality. However, we continue to see Richard respond with limited words and a lack of internal reflection.

Richard’s lack of self-reflexivity and willingness to face one’s truth about one’s racial position is what Yancy (2015) calls suturing. Yancy (2015) speaks to White audiences and challenges them to make the intentional decision to become unsutured—to grieve, to be vulnerable, and to acknowledge how one has been complicity within a white supremacist system. Yancy (2015) writes, “The concept of deciding denotes a life of commitment to “undo,” to “trouble,” over and over again, the complex psychic and socio-ontological ways in which one is embedded in whiteness. The decision is one that is made over and over again for the rest of one’s life” (p. xiv). To intentionally become unsutured again and again results in a loss of white identity and is no easy task. Instead many folks with White identities, when confronted with opportunities to become unsutured, often close themselves off, maintaining and preserving normative ideologies of white supremacy (Yancy, 2015).

Yancy (2015) further explains, “The process of suturing, then, is reflective of another fable: the white self as a site of self-possession and in absolute control of its own meaning, where such meaning is taken to be grounded within a larger white narrative history underwritten by a natural/metaphysical teleology” (p. xv). I spend time describing Yancy’s (2015) concept of suturing because it is inextricably tied to Whiteness as Property and fully describes Richard’s position through the film Loving (2016). Richard sees himself as a “site of self-possession and in absolute control” (Yancy, 2015, p. xv.). He sees no need for White self-criticality. For Richard, he has the privilege to turn away, to not engage with the reality and maintain his ignorance. He avoids acknowledging a reality of racism, current consequences of Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation and where his White identity is privileged above all else.

For example, after trying to bail out Mildred from jail for the second time, Richard is called into Sherriff Brook’s office where he sits Richard down to talk to him. Sherriff Brooks states, [Sherriff Brooks:] “See you got to thinkin’ it was fine. You might think people around here wouldn’t care. Hell maybe they wouldn’t if your dumb country ass hadn’t gone off and married her, but not me. You hear me? That’s God’s law. My made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason” (Nichols, 2015). Throughout this scene, as with many scenes in the film, Richard hardly says a word and if he does, it is an emotionless reaction. For instance, we see dialogue between Richard and his mother who also echoes Sherriff Brook’s sentiments of “You knew better.” Lola, who after helping Mildred give birth to their first child, said: [Lola:] You never shoulda married that girl. [Richard doesn’t even turn to answer this.] [Richard:] I thought you liked her. [Lola:] I like a lot of people. That doesn’t mean you shoulda gone and done what you did. You knew better.

Again, we see characters who remind Richard that he is a White man and of the historical context of racism and history of Jim Crow laws. However, we fail to see Richard address race or respond with emotion beyond a few words, a shrug, or a nod. The above two examples were of White characters, but in the follow example, we see Garnet, Mildred’s sister, who now addresses Richard in a “knowing better” discourse. As Mildred and Richard say good-bye to Mildred’s family as they leave for Virginia, Garnet says: [Garnet:] You knew what you was doin’ takin; her up there! You had no right for that! Richard doesn’t argue, just deflects with a nod. Garnet storms into the house. Mildred watches her go, barely able to keep it together.

Every character surrounding Richard and Mildred see and acknowledge their current reality of living and loving under Jim Crow laws—all except for Richard. Richard fails to respond or to show any signs of self-criticality. In another example, when Richard and Mildred first meet Mr. Cohen for the first time, Mr. Cohen is explaining to the Lovings the process of appeal to eventually take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Mr. Cohen mentions federal court, Richard responds: Richard: “Federal court?” Bernie Cohen: “Yes, the goal is to try and get the Federal Court to hear this case so we can get…” Richard: “’Scuse me, but I don’t understand Federal Court.” Bernie Cohen: “Well I see it as the best route….” Richard: “Can’t you just go talk to Judge Bazile? I mean we aren’t hurtin’ anybody. Can’t you just go tell him that?” Bernie Cohen: “I don’t think…” Richard: “Just talk to him. Tell him if he lets us back in the state we won’t bother anybody.”

This scene exemplifies Richards ignorance, post-racial ideology, and colorblindness. Richard once again fails to acknowledge the racial dynamics and historical racial segregation he has been exposed to his entire life. Instead, Richard just wants to love his wife and live with her in Virginia. What’s the big deal? The famous quote “Tell the court I love my wife” in actuality states, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I cannot live with her in Virginia” (Coleman, 2016). This author agrees with Richard. Of course it is not fair. However, staying ignorant and unwilling to see how one is playing a role in furthering Whiteness as Property is also “unfair” and irresponsible. Ultimately, Richard’s ignorance exemplifies and furthers Whiteness—Richard’s character, as with Whiteness, stays the same. He does not have to interrogate the intersections of his gender and race.

Instead, Richard can continue to not acknowledge race; even with several opportunities to verbally do so as the above examples demonstrate. One would hope in a re-telling of Loving that the film’s main characters would acknowledge race—being that the U.S. Supreme Court decision directly acknowledged race and struck down a white-supremacist law. Nichols had the opportunity to direct a story that did not include a post-racial ideology and could have left audiences interrogating their own Whiteness and complicity in systematic racism. However, Nichols strategically chose to make a film that was ironic and ambiguous: a film that was emotionless, a film about race, but not about race, and a white-washed retelling of Loving v. Virginia (1967). The ambiguity is directly related to Whiteness, post-racist ideology, and Whiteness as property. Furthermore, through a CRT reading of Loving (2016), Nichols had the opportunity to turn any scene when a character directly addresses Richard’s racial reality into a turning point in the film where we see Richard interrogate his racial and gender positionality and demonstrate a willingness to become unsutured (Yancy, 2015).

Unfortunately, audiences are left with a film that feel-good film about race where individuals with White and privileged identities can continue to live sutured lives and perpetuate White supremacy. Closing reflections This essay demonstrated how Loving (2016), as a contemporary remembrance of the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia, perpetuates post-ideology, supports Whiteness as Property, and overall undermined the historic 1967 civil rights decision. Films, like Loving that re-tell civil rights histories, have the opportunity to contextualize the historical and modern-day significance of race and racism in the U.S., but also tell a counter-story that challenges normalized accounts of historical events told from a White perspective. Instead, Loving re-told a historic civil-rights decision that perpetuates post-racial ideologies and Whiteness and property and left audiences unchallenged, unmoved, and complicit in White supremacy. Loving had multiple opportunities to be more than a “feel good” film.

The film had the potential to re-tell this historic civil-rights decision using a critical lens—one that could have audiences seeing Richard’s becoming unsutured and confronting his complicity in White supremacy. The film could have presented the strong emotions surround race that many—especially people of color—know all too well. People of color in the U.S context do not have the privilege to look away or not be self-reflective, like Richard. Audiences could have left theaters participating in critical dialogue about their own positionality and, in seeing themselves through Richard, could also come to space of being unsutured and reflect on ways in which they could address their own complicity in White supremacy. The film undermines the historic turning point in our history where the Court directly addressed White supremacy and struck down one of the last Jim Crow laws in our country. Unfortunately, Loving (2016) is an emotionless, unclimactic, and commodified version of the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision and is a disappointment to audience looking for a re-telling of Loving v. Virginia (1967) that challenges audiences to be self-critical and reflective.

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