In The Loving Story, documentarian Nancy Buirski sheds light on a part of the civil rights movement that, among the more iconic stories of the era, often gets overlooked. The film, contemplative and low-key in tone, paints a candid portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from the South whose marriage in 1958 became the catalyst for a landmark case: Loving v. Virgina. Through interviews and archival footage, the film pieces together how the painfully shy construction worker and soft-spoken daughter of a sharecropper fought to overturn anti-miscegenation laws in 24 states, laws that made it a felony for mixed-race couples to marry in America.
Buirski begins the documentary by quickly giving background: Richard, a white man, and Mildred, half black and half Native American, are banned from their small hometown in Caroline County, Virginia shortly after their marriage and subsequent arrest. Forced into exile in Washington, DC with their three small children, the couple writes a desperate letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who refers them to a young, inexperienced lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union. As the story of the Lovings unfolds, we learn about the many battles won and lost in the ongoing case that would eventually reach the Supreme Court nearly a decade later.
We gain insight into the Loving case through present-day interviews with family and friends, including their only surviving child Peggy Loving, and lawyer Bernard S. Cohen. And while the commentary from those who knew the couple is certainly illuminating, it’s the use of extensive archival footage, newsreels, and still photographs of the Lovings during the time of the case that forms the true emotional core of the documentary. The importance and sheer impossibility of what the Lovings did is amplified by the everyday moments of their lives together, captured on 16mm film. These rare home videos show glimpses of a simple but happy existence: the Loving children climbing trees in their backyard and Mildred and Richard quietly holding hands on the porch of their Virginia home and discussing the first time they met (“I didn’t like him at first,” Mildred says). The clips of innocence and domesticity create a captivating contrast to news clips of Virginia legislators declaring that “God did not intend for the races to mix.”
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the doc is that it allows the Lovings to tell their story in their own words. The Lovings weren’t leaders in the movement, they didn’t march alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers. But it’s there ordinariness, so honestly displayed in the film, that makes their place in history all the more poignant. In one piece of rare footage, when asked about her role in the civil rights movement, Mildred humbly explains, “I wasn’t part of the civil rights movement. We were just trying to get back to Virginia. That was our goal: to get back home.”