Produced by Raindog Films
Directed and written by Jeff Nichols
Distributed by Focus Features
Produced by Cross Creek Pictures
Directed by Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
Distributed by Summit Entertainment
I first learned about miscegenation in 1958. A student in my high-school religion class asked our teacher, Father Kohler, what he thought about race relations. Would they, he wondered, ever be resolved? The question surprised me. To my knowledge there wasn’t a single black student in our all-boy Catholic institution at the time. Father Kohler pondered the question for a moment and then suggested that the difficulty might be overcome by intermarriage. Groans of disbelief arose in the room. This was unthinkable. Despite knowing blacks (negroes, as we called them then) on the sports teams of rival schools, we regarded women of their race as far too alien to inspire romantic interest. (Thomas Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings wasn’t to make headlines for another 40 years.) Furthermore, few of us beyond those whose parents were wealthy enough to retain hired help had ever conversed with black females. Meanwhile, 350 miles south of our schoolroom, an instance of intermarriage was causing considerable turmoil. Colored Mildred Jeter and white Richard Loving had defied Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. They had traveled to Washington, D.C., where racial intermarriage was legal and then returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where such a union was emphatically illegal. They were soon arrested. After pleading guilty, they were told that they had to leave the state. When I learned of the Loving case nine years later on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision to abolish bans on miscegenation nationwide, I was surprised but, thanks to Father Kohler’s suggestion, not scandalized.
In the ironically titled Loving, director Jeff Nichols tells the story of this quiet, unassuming couple with admirable restraint. Mildred and Richard never thought of themselves as political revolutionaries and were chagrined to have been drawn into the heated public debate over miscegenation. They wanted only to live together and raise their children.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton play the couple with a muted elegance suitable to the couple’s retiring simplicity. Negga is of mixed heritage; her mother is Irish, and her father Ethiopian, which gives her a coloring and look that accords with her character’s African and Native American antecedents. Interestingly, the real Mildred claimed at times that she was Indian rather than African, as did her grandson in a recent interview. Her photographs from the 1960’s strongly suggest this was for her a socially useful fiction, blacks being further down on the status scale. Perhaps to avoid narrative complications, the film doesn’t mention her Indian roots at all. Too bad. This is an issue worth noticing. I live in New York on the east end of Long Island, where a small but significant portion of the population has descended from a mix of Native American, African, and European ancestry. One my former students at St. John’s University, for instance, is a member of the Shinnecock tribe in Southampton. Her features and coloring clearly indicate she’s also of African heritage, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she could trace her lineage to Europe also. Given her vivacious wit, I suspect there’s some Irish in her antecedents, but then I’m prejudiced on this count.
Negga is not conventionally beautiful by either white or black criteria. She is, however, winsomely feminine with a delicate frame and large limpid eyes, not unlike those revealed in photos of Mildred from the 1960’s. It’s not surprising that Richard would have found her attractive. Then there’s the fact that they had known each other for most of their lives. Richard met Mildred when she was 11 and he 17. It’s fair to infer that their relationship was founded not on physical attraction alone. Growing up in Caroline County, a part of Virginia known for its relaxed relations between the races, it seems quite probable that they came to love each other genuinely and that Richard would have welcomed Mildred’s announcement that she was going to give birth to their child at 18. Edgerton portrays Richard as an honorable working-class man who, while unable to articulate his feelings, is determined to meet the obligations they have incurred.
Mildred and Richard are presented as good country people who have no interest in notoriety or activism. They would never have stirred up racial politics had they not run afoul of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. Their lives were not animated by the alarms of the larger world. Then in 1963, Mildred uncharacteristically decided to take action. Watching television, she sees the Civil Rights Movement gathering momentum and, hoping against hope, decides to write Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help. To keep out of the law’s way, she and Richard had been living with their three children in cramped quarters in de facto segregated D.C. Understandably, she wanted to return to Caroline County. Kennedy’s office referred her appeal to the American Civil Liberties Union. Shortly thereafter Bernard Cohen pays the Lovings a visit. He proposes to wage an assault on Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act on their behalf. While he seems genuinely solicitous of their interests, the gleam in his eye reveals he has an interest of his own. Cohen recognized that the Lovings’ case would likely become high profile and wanted to use it to make a name for himself. As we know, Cohen succeeded in serving both his and the Lovings’ interests, but as the film makes clear, his actions put the Lovings at some risk. Had the Supreme Court ruled against them, they might have been forced to leave Caroline County once more. Worse, their children might have lost their inheritance rights and Social Security benefits. Cohen doesn’t seem to have explained this to them fully, perhaps another instance of mistreatment on racial and class grounds.
Nichols and his writers neither hector nor shame us with grand, fiery speeches in the cause of racial justice. The closest the film comes to a display of righteous anger is when, on the eve of the Supreme Court’s hearing of their case, Richard mumbles to a mystified Cohen that he doesn’t want to appear in court. Instead, he asks Cohen to “tell the judge I love my wife.” In its intense quietness, the moment is inexpressibly poignant and terrifically forceful.
Hacksaw Ridge also concerns good country people. It’s a well-made but ultimately misguided war movie. Director Mel Gibson seems to have wanted to make another Sergeant York, a patriotic paean to the heroism of ordinary Americans. The film celebrates Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the conscientious objector who on religious grounds insisted on going into battle against the Japanese at Okinawa as an unarmed medic. Gibson follows the conventions of this kind of story but departs from its predecessors by foisting on his audience far grislier portrayals of battlefield carnage than were possible—both technically and aesthetically—in earlier times. Gibson’s well-known penchant for gore far exceeds the requirements of realistic portrayal. Here we’re served repeatedly with images of men whose entrails and musculature have been exposed by gunfire and explosives, the better for rats to feed on. Visceral filmmaking, indeed. Although the battle scenes have been made to look absolutely real, I found them profoundly unconvincing. When directors put viscera on display, they force us to ponder questions that militate against our willing suspension of disbelief. We can’t help asking ourselves how the explosions and flying body parts were made to look real. This disables our aesthetic absorption in the story we’re watching.
Gibson has done this before. In The Passion of the Christ he insisted on showing us every lash of metal-braided whips scourging the flesh from Jesus’ naked body. To what end? The torture scenes didn’t bring me any closer to the significance of the sacrifice. In search of visual impact, Gibson undermined his intention. I recall my father’s comment regarding the religious extravaganza Quo Vadis (1951). As we drove home from the theater, he pointed out that the bloody hunks of torn flesh scattered about the plaster of Paris arena during the martyrdom scenes weren’t the postprandial remains left behind by tigers and lions—and was it raccoons?—after they had gnawed on Christian bodies. The bloody leavings were merely the beefsteaks and soup bones we might find in our refrigerator at home. He may have been trying to soothe my sister and me by domesticating the gruesome spectacle to which we’d been exposed, but I suspect it was also his way of ridiculing the film’s attempt to shock the audience into a state of reverent submission to Hollywood-style religiosity. Not having gotten past the tenth grade, he hadn’t the analytical tools with which a course in film aesthetics might have equipped him. Nevertheless, he got it right. He always knew hoo-ha when he saw it. From its beginnings, Hollywood has subscribed to the aesthetics of the Roman arena. Directors are wont to choose brutality over mere suggestion to fill the theater’s seats. Of course, tearing actors limb from limb—however gratifying from the studio’s point of view—would be far too expensive and would have the further dismaying effect of summoning the police. This explains the welcome advent of computer-generated imagery.
In Hacksaw the arena aesthetic is especially unfortunate. By all accounts Doss was a genuine hero who, like so many other heroes, never strove to call attention to himself. He rejected all offers to write up his experiences. He simply didn’t want to be exploited for propaganda or profits.
The first hour of the film is filled with hokey didacticism. We see Doss at age ten slamming his brother with a cinder block in his West Virginia yard (not far from the Lovings). This near-fatal blow explains why he later refused to carry a rifle. To drive home the point, we see him gazing upon an image of Cain bashing Abel’s skull.
A few scenes on, we see Doss rushing a bleeding victim of an automobile accident to the hospital. While there he becomes besotted with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful nurse who’s drawing blood from donors for the victim. He quickly rolls up his sleeve to contribute his own. Thus, he is introduced at once to romance and the emergency skills he’ll need as a medic. After flirting with Dorothy for a few weeks, he informs her he’s signing up to do his part in the war effort. She’s aghast but can’t help admiring his courage. So on and so forth.
Do people’s lives really lend themselves to such narrative foreshadowing? It’s comforting to think so.