“When a man loves a woman…” That song, which was originally sung by Percy Sledge, is one of my favorite songs of the 1960’s, and it played a large part in my memories from that bygone era. In 1966, my mother and I lived at 56 Saint Germain Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, in the afternoon shadow of the Prudential Tower. At that time, we had all sorts of people living there: Asians, Blacks, Hispanics and Whites, living side by side, peacefully in one of the most racially divisive times in recent American history. Next door at Number 54 lived a very proper black man who often reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly every day, I would see him coming and going, neatly dressed in his business suit, crisp white shirt and tie, carrying his briefcase, walking to his car in his ever-confident pace. Some days, I recall saying hello or some other casual greeting to him; and he would smile, pat my head or shoulder, and tell me to have a very good day.
Every evening, he came home to our little microcosm of America, and his lovely wife would come out of their apartment building to greet him, just as he was arriving, as we kids were out playing games like tag or keep-away. I recall seeing him walking right up the stoop and kissing her affectionately. She really was a very attractive women… tall, thin, blonde, blue eyed, and white. As I played with my friends on the street, it never once occurred to any of us that in most of the nation of that day and age, what they were doing was considered illegal, and it could very well have endangered their lives if St. Germain Street been located in Atlanta, Georgia or Greenbow, Alabama instead of Boston, Massachusetts. Actually there were very few cities in the North where this lovely couple could live in peace and security, because in 1966, we were still a very divided nation about race, despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, had been dead for 101 years by this time.
What brings back all of these memories is this: A few days ago, I went to the movies with my daughter Danielle and saw LOVING (2016) starring Ruth Negga as Mildred and Joel Edgerton as Richard; it is the true story of a black woman and a white man who fell in love and got married. They only crime in life was in trying to bring their interracial marriage (performed in the District of Columbia) home with them to the state of Virginia, where in 1958 it was illegal for couples of mixed races to marry. It is a profoundly touching love story of two people totally committed to each other, and how they were discriminated against out of pure racist bigotry, for the “crime” of falling in love. The powers that be in their home county were deeply offended by what they called a “dumb-ass country boy” who didn’t know the difference between right and wrong under the law and dared to live openly with a black woman.
But Richard loved Mildred in spite of what society might think. As he said, she was the best thing that ever happened to him, and wanted to do anything to remain at her side. Following their arrest by the local authorities, they were railroaded into a swift trial in which they were forced to plead out. Their options were to both do five years in prison or take a one year suspended sentence, with the provision they leave the state and their families for 25 years. Should they be found again in the state at the same time, they would be immediately imprisoned for the offense. Richard and Mildred went into exile in the District of Columbia as they awaited the birth of their first child, but it wasn’t easy for two small-town people to adapt to life in the big city, and very soon, Mildred became homesick. Richard’s mother had been a midwife to all of the children born in the county, and as Mildred’s due date approached, she convinced Richard to take Mildred home so she could give birth with her family and friends nearby.
It was a fateful decision. She had no sooner given birth to their first son when the police arrive to arrest them. “They’re lucky!” One of the deputies remarks to Mildred. “The judge is holding court!” and it appeared that they might be sent to prison immediately as promised. But at the very last moment, their Lawyer appeared and lied to the judge. “This is my mistake, your honor. I incorrectly told the Lovings they could return home for the birth of their child.” Frustrated, the judge was not able to hold them responsible for an error by their lawyer. And outside the courtroom, their lawyer warned them never to return again or there would be nothing he could do to protect them. I don’t want to tell you any more of the plot, but what happened after that incident would eventually change both American law and American history.
Seeing this movie touched me in so many ways; it looked like the America of my childhood memories, and I actually felt as if I was being transported back in time. But on another level, “Loving” reminded me that as much as I love America, I am also deeply ashamed of what my country has allowed to occur. At several points in this film, I found myself tearing up and weeping like a baby at the injustices being heaped on these poor people. At one point Mildred’s sister told her to write to then-Senator Bobby Kennedy. “He’s always talking about Civil Rights and you need you some Civil Rights!”
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, “Loving” may seem as if it takes a little too long for the story to unfold; but I think that speaks to the reality that Richard and Mildred didn’t fall in love overnight, and it took years before their dire situation was resolved. One notable performance in the film comes from actor Michael Shannon as Grey Villet; a Time-Life photo-journalist who captured pictures of the Loving family hiding away at their farm in King and Queen County Virginia. You can see some of his amazing photos here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/18/the-heart-of-the-matter-love/?_r=0 As an actor, Shannon has paid his dues in recent years, mostly playing villains, and it was very nice to see him portraying a normal human being for once. Joel Edgerton is the spitting image of Richard Perry Loving and breathed life into this man, while Ruth Negga (whose film credits include the 2013 movie “World War Z” and the 2015 film “Preacher”) showed us a woman who loved and inspired him to endure outrages that would have caused better men to quit. In the end I was very glad I took the time to see this film, and I am especially glad I could share it with my daughter, who was equally moved by it. If you see it, chances are that you will be moved by it too.