A Cultural Tide Begins To Turn

The civil rights movement, with support from Washington, turned hearts and minds—and films lionizing tolerance helped drive the shift.

Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in “Loving”) longed to return to Virginia but were frustrated by the courts’ slow pace.

“It’s like they’re caged,” says Mildred Loving of her children in the film “Loving.” “Not even any grass for them to run in.” But it was the whole Loving family that was caged, barred from their Virginia home by the Commonwealth’s racial purity law, and exiled to Washington, D.C.

During the years after they arrived in Washington, though the world was progressing, and for once, those changes appeared on the big screen before they made themselves felt in the Lovings’ lives.

Gregory Peck won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the tolerant lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The film marked a shift for Holllywood.

In 1959, MGM’s low-budget, fact-inspired “Night of the Quarter Moon” (with its lurid logline “I don’t care what she is … she’s mine!”) featured a bigoted, wealthy mother-in-law who sues to annul her son’s marriage to a one-quarter-black woman — played, as usual, by a white actress. “Quarter Moon” ends, reported Daily Variety’s critic on Feb. 6, 1959, as “the young couple departs the courtroom arm in arm” (though “their problems, instead of being ended, are only just beginning”).

“The Defiant Ones,” released that same year, was more indelible. It starred Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts chained together, so it was bromance, not romance, but this film about two men moving past prejudice to a friendship won honors for screenwriting and cinematography.

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Grey Villet’s photographs of Richard and Mildred Loving, and their children, in 1966 went a long way toward normalizing the idea of interracial marriage. Life magazine readers saw a young couple in love, with happy children. For those who still thought that interracial unions were doomed, it was visual proof they were wrong.

The next year, MGM released “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” a post-atomic-holocaust thriller in which survivors Harry Belafonte and white actress Inger Stevens at first find themselves alone, tantalizingly suggesting how the species might survive. Alas, as Variety’s critic noted on April 8, 1959, “racial purity raises its head.” As they walk off at the finale with a third (white) character in tow, said Variety, “life in the brave new world is likely to contain more than vestiges of the tired, old one.”

While MGM was still not ready to confront the barriers to interracial love, director John Cassavetes had already taken a battering ram to them with his film “Shadows,” which began production in 1957 but wasn’t released until ’59. Cassavetes — one of the first modern indie filmmakers — showed Italian-American actress Lelia Goldoni in a passionate relationship with a white man. Their romance stalls when he meets her two siblings, played by African-Americans. The suitor Tony, is struck dumb, and bails on her. Cassavetes depended on Goldoni’s innate lack of prejudice to bring the moment to life. “I was in a state of shock when it all came up,” she remembers.


A case can be made for the character of Lelia in 1959’s “Shadows,” from director John Cassavetes, as the movies’ first post-racial character. She suffers not from race shame, but a simple broken heart.

A case can be made for the character of Lelia in 1959’s “Shadows,” from director John Cassavetes, as the movies’ first post-racial character. She suffers not from race shame, but a simple broken heart.

The breakthrough in Hollywood’s handling of racism, though, was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened at the end of 1962. Daily Variety’s review called it “a telling indictment of racial prejudice,” saying that Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch delivers an “impassioned plea for justice … directly to the entire audience in the theater.” The Lovings might well have seen the film, and garnered some cheer from its message. When it too won screenplay honors at the 35th Oscars, as well as the lead actor accolade for Peck as iconic hero Finch, it was clear change was in the wind.

That change wasn’t coming smoothly, though. TV screens broadcast nightly assaults by snarling police dogs on peaceful Southern protesters. The Kennedy administration was talking of a civil-rights bill, but there was strong opposition from powerful southern legislators.

So when Attorney General Robert Kennedy answered Mildred’s plea for help with regrets that the White House couldn’t directly resolve the Lovings’ dilemma, she may have been disappointed, but not surprised. RFK suggested she contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been searching for decades for the right marriage test case to bring to the federal courts.

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On June 20, 1963, in her careful, school-polished handwriting, Mildred told the ACLU she was writing at Kennedy’s insistence, and calmly described their problems with the Commonwealth. “Please help us if you can. Hope to hear from you real soon. Yours truly.”

If Mildred doubted she’d get a reply, perhaps she derived some solace from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall just two months later, in the presence of 200,000 massed onlookers.

“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” King said. “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” On that day in 1963, few would have expected the waters to rise, or the bank to open its vault to the Lovings any time soon.

Yet within three months of that speech, young lawyer Bernard S. Cohen, co-founder of the Washinton, D.C. ACLU chapter, filed a motion to vacate the Lovings’ guilty verdict and set aside their conviction and suspension. The floodgates were opening at last.

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