You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hollywood Struggles to Embrace Ideals of Its Liberal-Message Movies

Liberal message movies about race tend to offer two things to the audience: a challenge and a reassurance. The challenge arrives as a question, one that’s been posed by movies from “Sounder” to “Selma”: Can we, as a society, do better? Can we transcend the hatred and bigotry of our past to forge an America in which equal really does mean equal? The reassurance is dicier. It often comes down to a movie like “Mississippi Burning” telling its viewers, in effect: “You can now shed a tear — and feel good about yourself — because you are one of the enlightened.”

Loving,” the new drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols (it opens Nov. 4), is liberal-message moviemaking at its most artful and transporting. The film dramatizes the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (played with stunning authenticity by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the interracial couple in 1950s Virginia whose relationship caused a local uproar and then a crackdown in the form of harassment, imprisonment, and violence. The two got married, but because Richard was white and Mildred was black, their relationship touched the third rail of prejudice in the South, and in America. The two fought for years to live their lives out in the open, and when their case reached the Supreme Court, in 1967, the resulting decision struck down the nation’s miscegenation laws.

“Loving” is a beautiful and stirring film, because it’s never preachy. It presents the Lovings not as crusaders (because they weren’t), but as two quiet, modest, ordinary people who wanted nothing more than to carry on with their lives. Even when the case grows intensely political, and they’re featured (in what became an iconic photograph) in Life magazine, Edgerton’s taciturn, slightly gruff Richard is never fighting for a social cause; he’s simply fighting for the right to love. Yet given that message, there’s a large and disquieting irony at work in the way that “Loving” fits into contemporary movie culture. In America today, interracial couples need not live with the terror they once did, and the notion that a relationship between people of different racial backgrounds is “exotic” is fast becoming a relic of the past. We can all — legitimately — feel good about that.

Still, there’s one place where a romantic relationship between someone who’s white and someone who’s African-American remains highly exotic. And that place is our movie screens. Sure, you can say that such a depiction isn’t technically forbidden, but how often do you see it? And in what context? How often, if ever, does it occur freely, casually, without a second thought? Does one seriously think there would be a chance, tomorrow, of mainstream Hollywood announcing that it was going to make a romantic comedy starring, say, Emma Stone and Chadwick Boseman? Let’s be honest: We virtually never see that kind of color-blind casting in romantic roles, and the only reason we never see it is that in the eyes of the film industry (much more so than in society at large), it is still, in effect, taboo.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a film that everyone loves to chide as a quintessential example of Hollywood racial piety. Its famous flaw is that the Sidney Poitier character had to be flawless — a more-perfect-than-thou paragon — to make everyone watching the movie (and everyone in Hollywood) feel good about themselves. The film’s whole design was, indeed, so painfully sanctimonious that it became an advertisement for the crippling caution of Hollywood.

Yet here we are, half a century later, and when it comes to depicting interracial relationships, the caution hasn’t gone away. Part of the power of a movie like “Loving” is that it creates an image of what we want America to be. Yet we should all be careful about viewing the prejudice the film depicts as a relic of the past. America itself has undergone profound change, but at the movies we’re still waiting to see who’s coming to dinner.

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

  • Climate Mobilization

    Marshall Herskovitz: Why the Climate Crisis Needs Movie Marketing-Style Muscle

     I’ve lived inside the climate-communications conundrum for 20 years, working with scientists, academics and activists to find ways to convince Americans that something they couldn’t see or feel was nevertheless a looming catastrophe worth upending their lives to fight. Now the climate crisis is undeniable, and we are finally seeing the beginnings of concerted action. [...]

  • Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver Gain Oscar

    Telluride: Oscar Buzz Builds For Renée Zellweger, Adam Driver and 'The Two Popes'

    This year’s Telluride Film Festival began on Thursday with the Guest/Patron Brunch on a private estate about a 30-minute drive from the center of town. Eggs, bacon and fruit salad were being served as the sun was shining on Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Noah Baumbach, Laura Dern, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Ken Burns, Ric Burns, [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    Telluride: Audience Laughs and Cries During 'The Two Popes' World Premiere

    Little did the audience at the world premiere of “The Two Popes” know that the papal two-hander is actually very funny. No, it’s not a comedy, but the jokes and ribbing between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future pope, Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), played well in the packed Chuck Jones’ Cinema, as did [...]

  • Renee Zwllweger in Judy

    Telluride: Renée Zellweger Will Return to the Oscars With 'Judy'

    The Oscars love actors playing alcoholic, drug-addicted singers. Last year, Rami Malek took home the big prize for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” beating out Bradley Cooper for his work as the fictional Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born.” Over the years, we’ve seen Jamie Foxx win for “Ray,” Jeff Bridges [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content