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.