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The Civil Rights movement had all manner of heroes, from the great orators of our time, like Martin Luther King, Jr. to the courageous citizens like Rosa Parks, who quietly refused to go along with the status quo.
For Richard and Mildred Loving, a mixed-race couple from rural Virginia whose court case eventually overturned the last remaining miscegenation laws in the U.S., helping change the course of history was little more than an afterthought to the question of living their lives together as man and wife in the place that they’d grown up.
Just weeks after getting married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, the Lovings were dragged from their bed in the middle of the night and jailed for violating a Virginia law against marrying a person of a different race. Convicted of that unfathomable felony, the couple was banished from the state and spent the next nine years fighting for the right to return there.
“I wasn’t in anything concerning civil rights,” Mildered Loving tells a camera crew in the Loving Story, the touching, award-winning documentary slated to run on Valentine’s Day on HBO. “I was, well, we were trying to get back to Virginia. That was our goal, to get back home.”
The film strikes a quiet, contemplative tone that befits its soft-spoken subjects rather than the tumultuous times in which they lived. Were it not for a racist county sheriff, the couple might have lived together unnoticed by the world at large. But after being forced to move to Washington, D.C., Mildred decided to write a letter to then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy asking for help.
Incredibly, Kennedy responded to the letter, advising Mrs. Loving to contact the ACLU. She did, and a pair of Jewish lawyers decided to pursue the case.
Benefiting from a treasure trove of archival footage shot nearly 50 years ago by filmmakers Hope Ryden and Abbot Mills, we see the Lovings not as icons of a movement but as ordinary, humble people.
“She wrote to… Who’d you write to?” a shy Richard asks Mildred in one of the few times in the film that he speaks to the camera.
“Bobby Kennedy,” she replies.
Much of the details about the case comes via as present-day interviews of Bernard S. Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, the inexperienced yet enthusiastic young lawyers who take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I had a natural first negative reaction to Mr. Loving, because I had been in the Deep South and I was very suspi cious of people, who looked ike rednecks — and boy, did he look like a redneck.” Hirschkop tells the camera.
Richard, a white man, and Mildred — who describes herself as half “colored,” half “Indian” — met in a working-class corner of Virginia where people seemed to get along with one another.
“I mean we just grew up all as a family together,” an unnamed Central Point farmer says over footage of fields and barns. “We never knew nothing about all this racial stuff that they talked about. And if the government had left them people [the Lovings] alone there would have never been no problem there. There was no difference in them. They were all working, trying to make a living.”
Visually punctuated with Life magazine photographer Grey Villet’s black-and-white stills, the film is an intimate portrait of the day-to-day lives of the otherwise camera-shy Lovings as they endure lower court verdicts that declare that God “separated the races” and “did not intend them to mix.”
Just as in the PBS documentaries from Freedom Riders to Eyes on the Prize, the images in The Loving Story that date to the civil rights era prove the most compelling. But here that footage almost exclusively deals with the couple’s interpersonal relationship, making the absurdity of miscegenation laws that much more glaring.
Lest we get lost in the beauty of the bond between the Lovings, producer and director Nancy Buirski (Sweet Dreams) employs a variety of sources to remind us to remind us why the couple’s relationship was so extraordinary in the context of an era.
“Being white meant a lot more than skin color,” historian Edward Ayers says over pictures of tobacco farmers and Ku Klux Klan members strolling in full regalia on city streets. “Being white meant being the inheritor of the Greeks and the Romans and of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and George Washington. Being white meant being the people who, by God’s will, seemed to be in charge — not only of Virginia, not only of America but of the whole world.”
In all, The Loving Story is a perfect time capsule that illuminates the racist past of our country with a uniquely personal and poignant emphasis. It’s a film that will continue to be enjoyed whether viewed on Valentine’s Day, during Black History Month or any other time of year.
On Twitter: @writerknowles
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