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Bar News - December 21, 2016

Movie Review: Loving v. Virginia: From Life Magazine to the Silver Screen


There are few landmark US Supreme Court cases with a backstory as compelling as that in Loving v. Virginia (1967). Residents of Caroline County, Mildred Delores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving were expecting their first child and sought to marry. However, they were prohibited from doing so in the Commonwealth of Virginia by section 20-59 of the state code, which read, “If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.”

Seeking to evade that law, which had regulated race relations in the Old Dominion since Virginia was governed by the appointee of a foreign prince on the advice of the House of Burgesses, they drove to Washington, DC in June 1958 and married. Shortly thereafter, they were arrested and charged under section 20-59 and section 20-58, which barred interracial couples from marrying in another state and returning to Virginia.

In January 1959, they pled guilty and were sentenced to a year in jail. Their sentences were suspended under the condition that they not appear together in the Commonwealth of Virginia for a period of 25 years. In his ruling, Judge Leon M. Brazile wrote, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” They left at once for Washington, DC where they would reside until 1964.

Their story was not atypical. Indeed, countless interracial couples had faced discipline and punishment in the South for daring to pursue love in the face of Jim Crow and the remnants of the colonial slave codes. Yet it was the Loving family that forever changed the face of American law – freeing all future interracial couples from harassment at the hands of the state – because they had the courage to actively challenge the reigning legal regime.

This tale, and how it was that Mildred and Richard Loving’s plea came before the Supreme Court, has now been made into a film by director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, who play the parts of Mildred and Richard, appear to walk out of the pages of Life magazine’s March 1966 issue.

All the elements of a watershed civil rights decision are present: the vindictive provincial authority, the young and underprepared attorney, and the overwhelmed plaintiffs. While some parts of the story are abbreviated out of necessity, the film articulates the appellate process and the legal issue at the center of the case with accuracy and clarity. What’s more, for lawyers and law students, this film is an important reminder that the profession has been on both sides of the great moral issues that have shaped American history.

Loving is currently playing at the Red River Theatre located at 11 South Main St. in Concord, NH, and at Nugget Theatres located at 57 South Main St. in Hanover, NH.

Nicholas Mignanelli

Nicholas Mignanelli is a 2016 graduate of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a Cracchiolo Law Library Fellow at the University of Arizona College of Law in Tucson, Arizona.

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