'The Loving Story': The First Couple Of Marriage Rights

by Amy Monaghan

The clear, steady gaze of Mildred Jeter Loving looks right at you from the photographs. Then there’s the shy, smitten glance of her husband Richard at the skinny woman he called “Bean.” In never-before-seen archival footage, their daughter, Peggy, faces down the camera as her mother pulls knee socks onto her legs, her brothers playing in the background. We’re getting a privileged glimpse into a loving family. The Loving family, who lent their name to the Loving v. Virginia decision, delivered on June 12, 1967, by the unanimous Warren Court, which invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other Southern states.

The Loving Story is director Nancy Buirski’s first film, but she founded the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, and ran it for a decade, so it’s safe to say Buirski knows her way around nonfiction. At a screening of the film in Durham, she said, “I had not come across this story in documentary form. I was pretty sure it had not been told.” Buirski also knows people like the great and powerful Oz of HBO’s doc division, Sheila Nevins, so it should come as no surprise that The Loving Story will follow its festival circuit run with a premium cable debut later this year.

A trove of previously unseen photographs (many of them taken by Life’s Grey Villet) and 16mm film (the latter shot by Hope Ryden in 1965 while the publicity-adverse defendants were living secretly in Virginia) turns the abstract but aptly named “Loving” of Loving v. Virginia back into a family fighting a terrible injustice. The film’s most powerful moments come from two marriages, actually: the Lovings’ and the marriage — a film term never more appropriate — of audio recordings of the Supreme Court testimonies with these photographs and silent footage of Mildred, Richard and their three children doing homely, ordinary things.

Loving is workmanlike, not flashy, something that could also be said of its subjects. Mildred Jeter Loving and Richard Perry Loving grew up in the same poor, rural community in Caroline County, Virginia. He’d drag race alongside her brothers on Saturdays, even though during the week they were governed by the color line. They married in 1958, before she was 20.

Then the sheriffs came into their bedroom at 2 a.m., rousing them with bright flashlights, and hauling them off to jail for the crime of interracial marriage. Mildred was part-black, part-Rappahannock/Cherokee. Richard was white. The couple had married in the District of Columbia, but mixed-race marriages performed anywhere were not recognized by Virginia. The original 1959 court decision suspended their sentences for 25 years but prohibited the young couple from living in the state. They couldn’t return — together — without risking re-arrest, even for a visit with family and friends.

Their exile in Washington, D.C., coincided with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. City life did not agree with the Lovings and so, emboldened by the advances being made, Mildred wrote to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask whether the new law would make it legal for the Lovings to return to Virginia as man and wife. It wouldn’t. Kennedy recommended that they take their case to the ACLU. The rest really is history.

So why should you schlep to a theatre to catch The Loving Story during the Tribeca Film Festival rather than setting your DVR in a few months? Because sobbing in a screening room in the company of fellow snifflers is much more purgative than weeping at home. Because you can get into terrific, wide-ranging, and booze-fueled related conversations afterward — about how adorable those pictures of the young Stanley Ann Dunham are! Or King and Spalding’s decision this week to withdraw from defending the Defense of Marriage Act! Or when The Gays will finally be able to put KitchenAid standing mixers on their registries — with the pals you dragged with you. Or with strangers you talked with in line. Or that person in your row who wisely brought and shared tissues.

Also! You’ll cheer at verité footage of the young and menschy ACLU lawyers Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, barely out of law school long enough to be admitted to argue before the Supreme Court. You’ll chuckle at their older selves recalling their first impression of taciturn Richard Loving as a redneck. (He kinda was.) You’ll find yourself wondering in amazement again and again at Mildred’s quiet country manners and her determination to make things better for her family and for other families like hers. And you’ll hiss at the lower court judge whose opinion stated, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Then, you’ll sigh when the lawyers repeat what Richard said when they asked if he wanted them to tell the Court anything: “Tell the Court, I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

I know, right? Take a minute for yourself. Deep breaths. You want a glass of water or something?

Oh, yeah, and then there’s the opportunity to catch the post-screening discussion with Buirski, Hirschkop, and others as they discuss this landmark case and current issues surrounding race and marriage equality. So go already. Mildred would approve. According to the last line of her New York Times obituary, Loving issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in her favor, “urging that gay men and lesbians be allowed to marry.”

Under her own name and as the Cinetrix, Amy Monaghan has been writing on the Internets since 2003. A lecturer in film studies and literature, she probably should be grading papers right now.

Photo by Grey Villet.