“Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” — Richard Loving
At the movies, heroes often save the day, get the girl and say all the best lines, but in real life, that’s rarely the case. For Richard and Mildred Loving it was their quiet resolve, and the simple motivation that they were stuck in an unfair and unjust situation, that saw them battle for years to attain the very simple right to live together, as husband and wife, in their home state of Virginia. “The Loving Story” is a respectful and at times, eye-opening chronicle of their pursuit to be able to live an honest life.
It’s hard to believe, but just over 50 years ago, interracial marriage was still banned in seventeen states, and it took South Carolina and Alabama until 1998 and 2000 respectively, to finally take all their anti-miscegenation language out of state constitution. Thus, when the white Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (an African American/Native American mix) were married, and subsequently charged for being in an illegal union, they were forced into exile from the small rural town where they lived, to the bustling big city of Washington, D.C. They could not return to Virginia to visit family or friends, or they would risk jail time. There were no organized protests or petitions, instead, it was a single letter written by Mildred to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that got the ball rolling on their long journey to win the simple right to live under the same roof. Advising them to go the ACLU, the Lovings (a more appropriate name, one could not invent) were finally put into touch with Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, two young lawyers just a couple years out of law school, who decided to take on their case.
Director Nancy Buirski‘s film owes a large thanks to the amazing archival footage captured by producer Hope Ryden at the time of the various trials (the case took nearly a decade until it was finally heard by the Supreme Court), capturing both the Lovings at home and the lawyers at their office and out in the field, working on the case. Weaving this together with a voiceover narration and intercut with interviews, Buirski reveals Richard and Mildred as one fo the most unlikely, history making couples you would ever meet. Simply put, Richard is “redneck” in every stereotypical sense of the word, a big hulking figure of a man, with a short crew cut, who amongst the extended amounts of archival footage, rarely says much. He hardly looks like one who would be involved in any kind of political action, but for him, this is all a matter of personal rights. Yet, watching him with his children, or in many of the photographs with his wife, the deep sensitivity and unparalled affection for his family shines through. Meanwhile, it’s Mildred who does most of the talking for them. And indeed, this beautiful, lively young woman seems strained by the hassle of it all, but it’s a very simple gesture by the pair, in one of numerous moments outside the courthouse, that speaks volumes. As they walk back and forth on the sidewalk navigating the sea of cameras and reporters, their fingers gently intermingle, as they hold each other’s hand, a bond that allows them to face anything the world may throw at them, and a simple explanation for why they forge ahead with the seemingly impossible task of overturning Virginia law.
“The Loving Story” tries to balance both a historical persepctive and a personal one with mixed results. The extensive archival footage and interviews with Cohen and Hirschkop does allow for a clear-eyed, easy to follow discussion of the various legal entanglements the duo had to overcome in order to bring the case to the Supreme Court. Thus when they explain the importance professionally for them of being able to argue in the highest court of the land, you feel the triumph with them. Also aiding in the legal portions of the film are unedited audio from the hearings, which allow for Virginia’s defense of their law to come through in all its ignorant glory. But this dogged focus on the various maneuverings means that our knowledge of the Lovings, even with the photographs (beautifully shot by LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet) and vintage video, is not as detailed as the viewer might hope.
While Buirski does interview their eldest child, Peggy Loving, the other two children are completely unacknowledged and unmentioned. And as the Supreme Court judgment comes in, there is a little context after the fact on how it was received across the nation, particularly in states which still had interracial marriage laws in effect. While “The Loving Story” purports to tell just that, there are many missed opportunities or unasked questions that prevent the film from being a complete document. While we hear (briefly, vaguely) from Richard’s mother, there is no indication of what Mildred’s parents and family felt about her struggle or marriage. There is also nothing said about any difficulties the children might have faced on the schoolyard. A cross being burned on Mildred’s mother’s lawn is mentioned, but never goes much further. Finally, we don’t hear anything either way about encouragement or disdain, Mildred, Richard and the children might have faced as the case dragged on through the years, and gained publicity nationally in newspapers and on television.
But while we may wish for a fuller picture of the social and political ramifications, Richard and Mildred’s devotion to each other is more than enough to carry the film. Buirski has made a picture that brings a sobering perspective to what true commitment really means in a relationship. “The Loving Story” finally sheds some light and gives due recognition to two people who could have easily given up or simply moved somewhere else, who felt deeply (and rightly) they deserved to be together wherever they chose to lay their heads. Moving and insightful, see this with someone you love. [B]
“The Loving Story” premieres on HBO on Feburary 14th at 9 PM.