Interracial marriage on screen

ON THE surface they seem to offer the same narrative of love conquering all, based on real lives and real events. Both use marriage to reveal the ugly face of racism. Both are set in post-war countries that regarded themselves, straight-faced, as the defenders of freedom. But the similarities between “Loving” (pictured above) and “A United Kingdom” end there. One is a quietly powerful portrait of a relationship conducted in private; the other, involving a head of state and high politics, demands eloquent orations on equality and democracy.

The films approach the central issue of racism in vastly different ways. “A United Kingdom (below)” wastes few seconds in establishing the toxic climate of London in 1947: the opening scene, of a boxing match, sees Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) not only punched, but pummelled with racial slurs by his white opponent, as a predominantly white crowd bays for blood. The threat of violence both verbal and physical remains imminent. Returning home from a night of dancing, Seretse and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) are attacked, she a “cheap slut”, he a “savage” taking “one of ours”. The morning after the wedding, they discover a sketch of a lynching with the headline “niggers out”. Seretse and Ruth are forced to defend their relationship both in Britain and in Seretse’s native Bechuanaland; speaking to his tribespeople, he tearfully implores them to resist the “racialist disease” that had already taken hold in South Africa, and asks them to accept Ruth as his wife.

“Loving”, by contrast, makes few direct references to the characters’ race. The central relationship is introduced in medias res, with Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard’s (Joel Edgerton) love, by this point, already unremarkable to their families and friends. News of their marriage and pregnancy is met only with excitement—Ruth’s father drives with them from Virginia to Washington, DC to act as the witness—and only Ruth’s sister expresses any anger, for not being able to see the nuptials herself. Even when they are arrested for violating the miscegenation laws, the police officers are not unduly forceful, and address them in plain, legal language. It evokes a side of segregation not often seen on film; those involved see themselves as merely upholding orders, not perpetuating hate.

For the most part, Richard and Mildred play by the rules too. The only grand statements on the right to marriage and equality are from their lawyers; saving this for the film’s climax is an emotive masterstroke. Richard and Mildred are concerned only with their everyday freedoms—working, providing for their children, seeing their family—not with making history. Their case is motivated solely by a longing to return to Virginia, from which they have been exiled, in order to raise their children among open fields and not car-lined streets. Richard, having shunned publicity, declines the “honour” of sitting in on their Supreme Court hearing. He tells the lawyer only to make sure the court knows the essential: “I love my wife.”

Indeed, the relationship portrayed in “Loving” is more moving and believable than that of “A United Kingdom”. Ruth and Seretse’s romance is condensed into a few minutes; for the rest of the film they endure their indignities apart, barely seen to be communicating. The marriage is only the focus of the first third of the film, before it is engulfed by international diplomacy, mineral exploitation and political deceit. It feels as though it could easily cave under the pressure. Ms Pike, usually excellent, is one-dimensionally wide-eyed and breathless as Ruth.

“Loving”’s Mr Edgerton, by contrast, powerfully conveys a wide range of emotions—his performance certainly merits an Oscar nomination. Richard and Mildred are barely separated (and when they are, the angst is palpable). The natural ease and intimacy of their body language conveys a love with deep roots. Where “A United Kingdom” strays into courtship clichés—dancing to faint music, a proffered jacket on a cold night—“Loving” revels in small moments of subtle affection.

“A United Kingdom” has its strengths, particularly in exposing the myriad machinations of the British government as it tried to justify apartheid in South Africa. But it suffers from comparison with “Loving”, which is more deftly scripted, its characters more fleshed out and its critique of segregation laws more piercing. Yet in reminding audiences of Britain and America’s shameful recent past, both films serve as a much-needed counterpoint to today’s climate of jingoism and nostalgia.

“A United Kingdom” is available in Britain now and in America on February 17th. “Loving” is available in America now and in Britain on February 3rd. ON THE surface they seem to offer the same narrative of love conquering all, based on real lives and real events. Both use marriage to reveal the ugly face of racism. Both are set in post-war countries that regarded themselves, straight-faced, as the defenders of freedom. But the similarities between “Loving” (pictured above) and “A United Kingdom” end there. One is a quietly powerful portrait of a relationship conducted in private; the other, involving a head of state and high politics, demands eloquent orations on equality and democracy.

The films approach the central issue of racism in vastly different ways. “A United Kingdom (below)” wastes few seconds in establishing the toxic climate of London in 1947: the opening scene, of a boxing match, sees Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) not only punched, but pummelled with racial slurs by his white opponent, as a predominantly white crowd bays for blood. The threat of violence both verbal and physical remains imminent. Returning home from a night of dancing, Seretse and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) are attacked, she a “cheap slut”, he a “savage” taking “one of ours”. The morning after the wedding, they discover a sketch of a lynching with the headline “niggers out”. Seretse and Ruth are forced to defend their relationship both in Britain and in Seretse’s native Bechuanaland; speaking to his tribespeople, he tearfully implores them to resist the “racialist disease” that had already taken hold in South Africa, and asks them to accept Ruth as his wife.

“Loving”, by contrast, makes few direct references to the characters’ race. The central relationship is introduced in medias res, with Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard’s (Joel Edgerton) love, by this point, already unremarkable to their families and friends. News of their marriage and pregnancy is met only with excitement—Ruth’s father drives with them from Virginia to Washington, DC to act as the witness—and only Ruth’s sister expresses any anger, for not being able to see the nuptials herself. Even when they are arrested for violating the miscegenation laws, the police officers are not unduly forceful, and address them in plain, legal language. It evokes a side of segregation not often seen on film; those involved see themselves as merely upholding orders, not perpetuating hate.

For the most part, Richard and Mildred play by the rules too. The only grand statements on the right to marriage and equality are from their lawyers; saving this for the film’s climax is an emotive masterstroke. Richard and Mildred are concerned only with their everyday freedoms—working, providing for their children, seeing their family—not with making history. Their case is motivated solely by a longing to return to Virginia, from which they have been exiled, in order to raise their children among open fields and not car-lined streets. Richard, having shunned publicity, declines the “honour” of sitting in on their Supreme Court hearing. He tells the lawyer only to make sure the court knows the essential: “I love my wife.”

Indeed, the relationship portrayed in “Loving” is more moving and believable than that of “A United Kingdom”. Ruth and Seretse’s romance is condensed into a few minutes; for the rest of the film they endure their indignities apart, barely seen to be communicating. The marriage is only the focus of the first third of the film, before it is engulfed by international diplomacy, mineral exploitation and political deceit. It feels as though it could easily cave under the pressure. Ms Pike, usually excellent, is one-dimensionally wide-eyed and breathless as Ruth.

“Loving”’s Mr Edgerton, by contrast, powerfully conveys a wide range of emotions—his performance certainly merits an Oscar nomination. Richard and Mildred are barely separated (and when they are, the angst is palpable). The natural ease and intimacy of their body language conveys a love with deep roots. Where “A United Kingdom” strays into courtship clichés—dancing to faint music, a proffered jacket on a cold night—“Loving” revels in small moments of subtle affection.

“A United Kingdom” has its strengths, particularly in exposing the myriad machinations of the British government as it tried to justify apartheid in South Africa. But it suffers from comparison with “Loving”, which is more deftly scripted, its characters more fleshed out and its critique of segregation laws more piercing. Yet in reminding audiences of Britain and America’s shameful recent past, both films serve as a much-needed counterpoint to today’s climate of jingoism and nostalgia.

“A United Kingdom” is available in Britain now and in America on February 17th. “Loving” is available in America now and in Britain on February 3rd. ON THE surface they seem to offer the same narrative of love conquering all, based on real lives and real events. Both use marriage to reveal the ugly face of racism. Both are set in post-war countries that regarded themselves, straight-faced, as the defenders of freedom. But the similarities between “Loving” (pictured above) and “A United Kingdom” end there. One is a quietly powerful portrait of a relationship conducted in private; the other, involving a head of state and high politics, demands eloquent orations on equality and democracy.

The films approach the central issue of racism in vastly different ways. “A United Kingdom (below)” wastes few seconds in establishing the toxic climate of London in 1947: the opening scene, of a boxing match, sees Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) not only punched, but pummelled with racial slurs by his white opponent, as a predominantly white crowd bays for blood. The threat of violence both verbal and physical remains imminent. Returning home from a night of dancing, Seretse and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) are attacked, she a “cheap slut”, he a “savage” taking “one of ours”. The morning after the wedding, they discover a sketch of a lynching with the headline “niggers out”. Seretse and Ruth are forced to defend their relationship both in Britain and in Seretse’s native Bechuanaland; speaking to his tribespeople, he tearfully implores them to resist the “racialist disease” that had already taken hold in South Africa, and asks them to accept Ruth as his wife.

“Loving”, by contrast, makes few direct references to the characters’ race. The central relationship is introduced in medias res, with Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard’s (Joel Edgerton) love, by this point, already unremarkable to their families and friends. News of their marriage and pregnancy is met only with excitement—Ruth’s father drives with them from Virginia to Washington, DC to act as the witness—and only Ruth’s sister expresses any anger, for not being able to see the nuptials herself. Even when they are arrested for violating the miscegenation laws, the police officers are not unduly forceful, and address them in plain, legal language. It evokes a side of segregation not often seen on film; those involved see themselves as merely upholding orders, not perpetuating hate.

For the most part, Richard and Mildred play by the rules too. The only grand statements on the right to marriage and equality are from their lawyers; saving this for the film’s climax is an emotive masterstroke. Richard and Mildred are concerned only with their everyday freedoms—working, providing for their children, seeing their family—not with making history. Their case is motivated solely by a longing to return to Virginia, from which they have been exiled, in order to raise their children among open fields and not car-lined streets. Richard, having shunned publicity, declines the “honour” of sitting in on their Supreme Court hearing. He tells the lawyer only to make sure the court knows the essential: “I love my wife.”

Indeed, the relationship portrayed in “Loving” is more moving and believable than that of “A United Kingdom”. Ruth and Seretse’s romance is condensed into a few minutes; for the rest of the film they endure their indignities apart, barely seen to be communicating. The marriage is only the focus of the first third of the film, before it is engulfed by international diplomacy, mineral exploitation and political deceit. It feels as though it could easily cave under the pressure. Ms Pike, usually excellent, is one-dimensionally wide-eyed and breathless as Ruth.

“Loving”’s Mr Edgerton, by contrast, powerfully conveys a wide range of emotions—his performance certainly merits an Oscar nomination. Richard and Mildred are barely separated (and when they are, the angst is palpable). The natural ease and intimacy of their body language conveys a love with deep roots. Where “A United Kingdom” strays into courtship clichés—dancing to faint music, a proffered jacket on a cold night—“Loving” revels in small moments of subtle affection.

“A United Kingdom” has its strengths, particularly in exposing the myriad machinations of the British government as it tried to justify apartheid in South Africa. But it suffers from comparison with “Loving”, which is more deftly scripted, its characters more fleshed out and its critique of segregation laws more piercing. Yet in reminding audiences of Britain and America’s shameful recent past, both films serve as a much-needed counterpoint to today’s climate of jingoism and nostalgia.

“A United Kingdom” is available in Britain now and in America on February 17th. “Loving” is available in America now and in Britain on February 3rd.