In 2016, two movies were released on quite a similar subject matter. ‘Loving’ starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga; A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. A special mention to director of A United Kingdom, Amma Asante.

Both movies are based on true stories of interracial marriages that had political and legal consequences. In both cases, just marrying someone that you loved became an unintended yet powerful act of resistance. Of course it would be wrong of us to believe that individual acts such as interracial marriages would spell the end of racism. No.  (Read my review of Palm Trees) We should not doubt that racism is a system sometimes evidenced by isolated acts of aggression or exclusion, but mostly upheld daily by seemingly benign acts that masquerade as colourblind devices of meritocracy or neutrality, founded on a long history of racial formations. Nevertheless, I digress. Let us talk about these movies.

First a word from Baba Spoilers…

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Baba Spoilers, Announcer Extraordinaire

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A United Kingdom [2016]

Tells the true story of Seretse Khama, the King of Bamangwato of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948, in the face of fierce opposition from their families as well as from the British and South African governments. Seretse and Ruth defied family, Apartheid and Empire to become a symbol of love and freedom in Botswana.

Loving [2016] 

The movie celebrates the love story and marriage at the centre of Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court case that ended racial discrimination for marriage. At the very beginning of the film, Richard (racialised white) and Mildred (racialised black) decide to get married when they find out that they are expecting a baby. Richard decides they should go and get married in Washington DC. No big deal, right? Wrong. They live in 1967 Virginia and apparently the law does not allow cohabitation between people of different races. So after they get married in DC and return to Virginia they are expelled from the state. The movie is an exploration of how the Lovings navigated the minefield of the state’s intrusion into their personal lives via the mechanism of the law, using the mechanism of the law.

I am not going to discuss the content of the movies so much, as I am going to presume that if you are reading this, you have watched both of them. However, I want to discuss 4 overarching themes that I believe connect both films, themes that demonstrate how, for those deprived of privilege, the personal and political will always be conflated:

 

[1] Black women, pregnancy and racial trauma

Many of the countries with high maternal mortality rates are in Africa – Sierra Leone, Chad, Nigeria. High maternal mortality rates are linked to the rural/urban divide and poor staffing and infrastructure. Which of course cannot be divorced from the impoverishment of Africa through cycles of racialised external ‘interventions’. However, even in countries with a surfeit of staff and resources, maternal mortality among black women is still quite high. In the United States, black women are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. 243%!!! Increased risk of obstetric complications was also found for non-white women in the UK. Issues arising from structural racism (racial disparities in access to healthcare), psychological effects of direct racism, as well as the fact that all too often, medical professionals just do not listen to black women’s descriptions of their symptoms, means that black women are placed under unnecessary risk at a point when they are most vulnerable.

And we see the above played out in these movies. Mildred wants to be with someone she trusts when she has her first baby, but the state of Virginia stands in the way of that, even though she really, really needs to feel safe in labour and she does not feel safe in exile. So when she goes into labour, in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, despite the threat of incarceration on arrival, Richard drives Mildred back to Virginia to have their child. When Seretse is exiled, Ruth finds out she is pregnant with their first child. She has become subject to some aspects of being racialised black by being married to a black man, and is being pestered by the Mrses Canning and Lancaster to go to South Africa to have her child. Heaven knows what they had planned to happen there. (Maybe an ‘accidental’ abortion) Ruth does not want to go to South Africa, but Mrs Canning and Mrs Lancaster, in false sincerity, try to push their advantage through Ruth’s vulnerability. Ruth is speaking, but they are not really listening to her. They ‘know’ what is best for her. Till Naledi stops them. She snatches wigs and hands out receipts. Figuratively, of course. In both cases, something very personal is politicised and in the case of Mildred and Richard has legal consequences as they are rearrested in Virginia.

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Richard and pregnant Mildred being arrested in Virginia

 

[2] Exile, loss of home and loss of belonging

Exile from home has been used to great effect as a punishment across the ages. Even just the threat of exile has brought great men and women low. I have written in a previous post, how Oba Ovonramwen of Benin was exiled from his kingdom by the British. Apartheid South Africa, in particular, used exile to great effect. Miriam Makeba and Oliver Tambo were famous Apartheid exiles. Oliver Tambo spent 30 years away from home. Imagine not being able to go home for 30 years!!! I watched an interview of Hugh Masekela, where he describes waking up one morning in Manhattan where he had been living in exile for 20 years. He has been away from home for so long he feels like a part of him is missing. There is no one in New York who understands his language, so he spends the rest of the day speaking to himself in his own language. People think he is crazy, but he is just homesick. Homesickness, a sickness that can only be cured by home.

Home is a very personal space, how we define ourselves, how we identify who we are; our sense of self is tied inextricably to where and what we consider home. Joseph, despite becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt, still asked for his bones to be buried in Israel, his home. Home. Home is a dangerous spirit. Home is a restless soul. In Roots, Kunta Kinte’s struggles were always to get back home. When he realised the nigh impossibility of that, he struggled to impart a sense of home in his children, a home they were destined to never see. Because home makes us whole. Home anchors us. Home defines us. Without home we are cast adrift on an endless sea of external definition. In both movies the couples were given a choice – lose each other or lose home. Those who gave this ultimatum knew they were issuing a great punishment. Lose the place that defines you or the person who completes you. It was no choice really. What is monstrous is the attempt to take a person from their home to force their hand. Should anyone have the power to do that? Should the law be able to take away a person’s ability to belong?

[3] The Law is not always just

I think it is worrying that we often see law as an objective abstraction, rather than as part of a societal continuum that is always infused with contemporary populist anxieties, political considerations, personal prejudices and a product of horrendous histories. I believe we must always be alive to law’s uses – historic and contemporary. Because as we see in both films, those uses have often subverted law’s functions of justice and equality. Slavery was legal, colonisation was legal, apartheid was supported by legislation, and many genocides have been legal or legalised. When we seek justice, many times we need to seek a change in the law or seek completely new legislation. Justice is often not to be found in the law as it stands, especially when we are seeking justice for voices and lives placed at the margins of society. In those instances, the law is not always just, in fact in those instances, the law is often not even innocent, but actually complicit. In Ruth and Seretse’s case, there was more justice to be found in the Bamangwato communal system than in the ‘universal’ legal system being imposed on them. As for the Lovings, they had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to seek for a change in the law, for them to be allowed to live together as husband and wife. And all the court’s justice could not repair the injustice that had already been done to them. As powerful as the law is, their loss of home, belonging and dignity could not be restored to them. No, the law is not always just.

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Ruth and Seretse together again in Botswana

 

[4] Love is simple, but it is steadfast, it is solid and it is strong. When sincere, it survives

I have always believed that love is the most powerful force in the world. Especially love that persists in situations where it seems that it would be better to deny that love. When asked what message he had for the justices of the Supreme Court, Richard Loving sent this simple message, “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” Straight to the heart of the matter. In A United Kingdom, when Seretse has to defend himself before the Bamangwato Kgotla (council), he tells them, “I love my people, I love this land, but I love my wife.” He refuses to serve his people without his wife by his side. Love in both films is quite simple for all the protagonists. They all want to be with the person they love. That. Is. All. I have often decried romance stories that have confused love and romance. Love appears more often in quiet whispers in nondescript rooms in mundane dwellings than in loud shouts from the top of the Empire State building. Love is found more often in a soft look across a barren wasteland, than in a shopping spree at Sak’s. Love is often functional cotton rather than high maintenance satin. Love is steadfast. It endures through separation and exile and hardship and loss of home and loss of belonging. Love is steadfast. Love is strong because it is personal. And when the personal becomes political, love will prevail. Love is all. Always.

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