Virginia, 1958 — a young man wants to marry his girlfriend, pregnant with their first child, but a state law banning interracial marriage makes that impossible. So they travel to DC to get married (legally) then return to their home way out in the country, hoping to fly under the radar. Nope. Armed police burst into their bedroom, arrest them, and throw them in jail. Lacking money for a real attorney, they accept the judge’s outrageous bargain – they can avoid a lengthy prison sentence if they move to DC.
Some years later, the wife, unhappy with DC, writes a letter to to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who refers her to the ACLU. The ACLU lawyers, somewhat disingenuously, say they can help (when they can promise no such thing). Virginia rules against them, but fortunately SCOTUS takes their case, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The film features fine, understated performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (why the filmmakers cast Australian and Ethiopian-born actors to play these American characters is a question, I guess, for another day). The screenplay’s “just the facts” style avoids grandstanding and lets the awful facts (including the fact that the local police won’t let the husband bail his pregnant wife out of jail) speak for themselves, which is dramatic enough. I wish they had spent more time on the courtroom arguments, but I would, wouldn’t I?
Some other thoughts: SCOTUS could have decided this case on narrow grounds, as a full faith and credit case, and ordered Virginia to recognize a marriage legally contracted in DC. Wisely, however, they decided to take on the entire issue of laws banning interracial marriage. Perhaps their decision was made easier by the blatantly racist, pseudo-religious language of the state court’s opinion, which based its judgment, essentially, on the assertion that God created separate races and put them in separate continents for a reason.
The laws against interracial marriage in the US have a more complex history than I had realized. Although they were common, they were never universal. Some states (NY, Connecticut, Minnesota) never had such laws, and others (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) got rid of them early on. The California Supreme Court invalidated California’s law in 1948 on 14th Amendment grounds, and a bunch of other states (mostly in the West) repealed their laws in the years following that decision. At the time of the SCOTUS decision in Loving v. Virginia, though, there were still 16 states which banned interracial marriage, all in the South.
The Wikipedia article has some helpful charts at the end: