Loving Individual Liberty

Hollywood’s dramatizations of black history have gained significant steam and acclaim over the past three decades, starting with Edward Zwick’s 1989 Civil War piece Glory. Before and after the turn of the millennium, films exploring slavery, segregation, and racism have abounded: Amistad (1997), Ray (2004), Red Tails (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Selma (2015), and Birth of a Nation (2016) come to mind. When presented in an historically accurate form, such cinema can promote a well-rounded view of America as a great, but imperfect, nation in the process of repentance for its incomplete application of liberty and justice for all people at the time of its founding and through its centuries of maturation. Unfortunately, there is often a subtext in these films which undermines the fact that black history in America is, when taken in a long view, a story of triumph over adversity. The quiet undertone therein is that in America blacks are perpetually victims and whites are inherently biased against them.

Conservatives are keenly aware of the entertainment industry’s anti-American stance. One of the gliteratti’s methods of expressing their disdain for America is to relentlessly propagate a twofold message of the permanent victimhood of blacks and the endless culpability of whites for the ills of minorities. Movies depicting events of decades past are subtly analogized to America in the post-Civil Rights era. These historical docudramas of black life in our country frequently and powerfully reinforce stereotypical black victimology and white guilt, thus indicting America as a retrogressive haven for white supremacists. The end game of this messaging is to stimulate animus in the minds of moviegoers towards the United States through the influencing of opinion that Americans of European descent are full of special privilege and that no matter how many gains non-Caucasians make they will forever be outsiders in the American experience.   

As a result, when I attended a screening of the film Loving -- a biopic of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia couple whose interracial marriage in 1958 caused such an uproar that their case ultimately went before the United States Supreme Court -- I entered with a concern that that the film would reiterate the politically-charged message “blacks are good, whites are bad.” I feared being subjected to two hours of snaggle-toothed white Southerners feverishly spewing racial epithets and tormenting poor black citizens until the patronizing liberal judges on the Supreme Court finally rendered a judgment to vanquish the rednecks.

Much to my delight, Loving not only stayed out of that fray but it surprisingly presented a cogent case for limited government and individual liberty. Loving eschews the typical Hollywood palette of broad-brushing all whites negatively and all blacks as morally superior victims of never-ending abuse. The film’s director, Joel Nichols, expressed in a recent interview:

“I think about politics as much as anyone else, especially this year. But I actually think of Loving as an antidote to political thinking. Richard and Mildred didn’t want to force an agenda on people. And, laying out this film, I didn’t want to force an agenda on people [either].”

The film hews closely to the history of the Loving vs. Virginia case, wherein the Supreme Court ruled against the antimiscegenation laws that had brought the Lovings into conflict with Old Dominion. However, unlike many of the depictions of relations between blacks and whites in bygone days, I found no racial arson in Loving. There was the obligatory rotten white sheriff, portrayed with venom by Marton Csokas, who harassed and jailed the couple because their marriage violated Virginia’s longstanding statute against such mixed-ethnicity unions, but the white characters in the film were not painted in such a way as to suggest that all Caucasian Americans are irredeemably racist. Conversely, the black characters were not drawn cinematically to play up their victimhood and they did not come across as seething with an anti-white indignation despite the sad reality of segregation. Essentially, the characters in the film are rendered with a sense of plain humanity.  

The film’s tone allows for an understated promotion of the value of small government and individual liberty to emerge. The Lovings’ crisis was that their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were violated by Virginia law. While they merely wanted to be left alone to live peaceably, the iron fist of big government hammered down on them with artificial boundaries on their personal freedom. In one scene, Joel Edgerton, playing Richard Loving, is found fraternizing in a bar with three black friends, one of whom states that his persecution by the Commonwealth is something that blacks under Jim Crow could not escape, but for a white man an easy solution was at hand: Simply to divorce his black wife. Loving is shown to be troubled by this recommendation; when his ACLU attorney later asks him what he wished to communicate to the Supreme Court, Edgerton as Loving replies, “You tell the judge I love my wife.” This was Richard Loving’s Gadsden Flag moment. An unassuming bricklayer from Caroline County, Loving had no flowery rhetoric at his disposal to sway the court’s opinion; he had no Lockean arguments to defend his God-given right to pursue his own happiness; he had little stomach to engage in a fight against the powers-that-be even after Mrs. Loving’s letter to then-attorney general Robert Kennedy about the couple’s plight triggered the series of events which ultimately ushered their case to the Supreme Court. Yet Richard Loving’s plainspokenness exemplified that singularly American quality of yearning for liberty over tyranny. In declaring that love for his wife was what mattered most in a case that could become the final blow against segregation, the protagonist was restating that Revolutionary War cry of “Don’t Tread on Me” in his own unique way. Anti-miscegenation laws served only to empower the State to exert unnatural authority over individuals. This being the case, the Lovings were made oppressed subjects of Virginia rather than free citizens thereof. When the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, the Lovings’ divinely ordained liberty increased while the State lost a measure of power which it had used to steal human liberty.

In the same interview mentioned above, film-director Nichols, an Arkansas native, hints at his own liberal leanings:

“You know, everybody wants to be on the right side of history. And everybody wants to get on a soapbox and preach. But I come from a part of the country where I disagree with the social views of a lot of people who are friends and family members, and I know the way to have those conversations with those people is not by yelling at them. It’s not, ‘You’re stupid and you’re closed-minded and uneducated.’ I’m going to say, ‘Well, try to think about the people at the center of this.’ That’s the best shot we have. It may not work -- but it certainly has a higher chance than the more aggressive option.”

To Nichols’ credit, liberalism does not disorient Loving, thus the film contributes positively to America’s ongoing discussion on race. Perhaps unwittingly to those involved in its production, Loving adds a well-crafted narrative to the arguments in favor of Constitutional conservatism, individual freedom, and limited government.   

John Steinreich has an M.A. in Church History from Colorado Theological Seminary and is the author of two Christian-themed non-fiction books The Words of God? and A Great Cloud of Witnesses. His works are available on Lulu Press and on Kindle.