Directed by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story centers on the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in the state of Virginia where interracial coupling was illegal, and their struggles, including the US Supreme Court case named after them – Loving vs Virginia (1967), the landmark civil rights case in which the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, unconstitutional, overturning existing laws and bringing an official end to all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States.
Persecuted by a local sheriff, the Lovings (he was white, she was part black) were found guilty of violating Virginia’s law against interracial marriage and forced to leave the state. But Mildred Loving chose to fight. She wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for help. He referred her to the ACLU and two young attorneys took the case.
Drawing on extensive archival footage, and on contemporary interviews with the family and the attorneys, the film vividly brings a monumental court case to life.
And even now, since that ruling 45 years ago, interracial marriage remains a source of debate over questions of identity, assimilation and acceptance.
Americans born in the 21st century will likely shake their heads in disbelief on learning that, not too long agao, US states once had laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
I’m sure Mildred and Richard Loving didn’t imagine that their unassuming love story would be at the center of a watershed anti-miscegenation civil rights case. But in 1967, when this soft-spoken interracial couple are exiled from Virginia, the only home they have ever known, for the mere crime of falling in love and getting married, they feel they have no choice but to fight back.
They were not interested in winning one in the name of civil rights; They were in love with one another and wanted the right to live together as husband and wife in Virginia, without any interference from the federal, state or local government, and the film takes on a similar humility and unpretentiousness, which makes it all the more fascinating to watch.
In 1958, they went to Washington, D.C. – where interracial marriage was legal – to get married. But when they returned home, they were arrested, jailed and banished from the state for 25 years for violating the state’s so-called Racial Integrity Act. To avoid jail, the Lovings agreed to leave Virginia and relocate to Washington. For 5 years, they lived in Washington, where Richard worked as a bricklayer. The couple had three children. Yet they longed to return home to their family and friends in VA. That’s when the couple contacted Bernard Cohen, a young attorney who was volunteering at the ACLU. They requested that Cohen ask the Caroline County judge to reconsider his decision.
Cohen and another lawyer challenged the Lovings’ conviction, but the original judge in the case upheld his decision.
Judge Leon Bazile’s quote is heard at the beginning of the film: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The case moved all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the young ACLU attorney made a vivid and personal argument: “The Lovings have the right to go to sleep at night knowing that if should they not wake in the morning, their children would have the right to inherit from them. They have the right to be secure in knowing that, if they go to sleep and do not wake in the morning, that one of them, a survivor of them, has the right to Social Security benefits. All of these are denied to them, and they will not be denied to them if the whole anti-miscegenistic scheme of Virginia… [is] found unconstitutional.”
The couple became celebrities after the landmark ruling. But Mildred and Richard wanted nothing to do with fame. They returned to their tiny Central Point, VA comunity, and shunned publicity. Richard died of injuries sustained in a car accident in 1975. Mildred, who died in 2008, was quiet and self-effacing and maintained all along that they married because they were in love, not to fight a civil rights battle.
Wisely, the filmmaker stays completely out of the picture, allowing the abundance of archival footage to tell the story, resulting in what we could call a verite-style documentary. And it’s thanks to the wonderful black and white civil rights era footage (some never seen publicly before – primarily centered on the couple’s interpersonal relationship, really contrasting the absurdity of anti-miscegenation laws), plus photographs and interviews, that makes Buirski’s documentary a deeply-felt, compelling human portrait of this seemingly average, yet remarkable couple – especially when framed in the context of the turbulent era during which their story takes place.
The Loving Story works wonderfully as a poignant reminder of this country’s racist past, told from a uniquely personal point-of-view. At the very least, it should encourage audiences to want to learn even more about the couple, their stories (individual and together) and the case they were at the center of.
There’s a feature-length scripted film in this, although I should mention that the story of the Lovings became the basis of Mr. & Mrs. Loving, a 1996 made-for-TV movie that starred Lela Rochon, Timothy Hutton and Ruby Dee. However, it was reported that Mildred Loving dismissed it as mostly fantasy.
The HBO co-production, which toured the film festival circuit over the last year, debuted on HBO in February this year; it’s now in limited USA theatrical release in New York City, at Maysles Cinema, running from December 10-16, so you’ve got 3 more days to catch it (today, Saturday and Sunday).