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The Loving Story

Directed by Nancy Buirski. US. 2011. NR. 77 minutes. Icarus. DVD.
Sun., May 20, 2012
May 20, 2012
4:30 pm

“The improbably named Lovings, Mildred and Richard, make a compelling couple, and not just because she is half-black, half-Native American and he is good ol’ boy white. In a rich collection of 16-millimeter film, old news clips and still photographs, the Lovings don’t look like two people caught up in a cause, they seem like two people caught up in each other. The Lovings became civil rights activists by default: victims of the times, the color of their skin and a willful, wrongheaded judge in Virginia. By accident, more than design, they made history.

And it was a remarkable moment in time, one that today seems prehistoric. In 1958, only three years before Barack Obama’s parents married, the newlyweds were awakened in their bed in the middle of the night by flashlights shining in their faces. Mildred explained that she was Richard’s wife. “Not here, you’re not,” the sheriff replied as he put them under arrest.

Not long after, in a plea bargain, Judge Leon M. Bazile essentially banished them — back then, interracial marriage was illegal in more than 20 states, including Virginia.

Richard and Mildred spent the next nine years fighting for the right to go home, and the film helps explains why this reserved, quiet husband and wife were so determined to return to a state that had tossed them out. Both were simple country people who wanted to be near their families and friends in tiny Central Point, Va. — for Mildred, especially, nearby Washington might as well have been Siberia.

Mr. Loving, who died in 1975, in the film has a crew cut, a backwoods accent and a taciturn manner; he looks like the kind of person who would be more likely to favor segregation. His own lawyer confesses that he was suspicious at first because Mr. Loving a construction worker, looked, as he puts it, “like a redneck.”

But Mr. Loving grew up in a farming community in rural Virginia too small and intertwined for race to become an issue or a problem. “There’s a few white, there’s a few colored and we all, as we grew up and as they grew up, we all helped one another,” he says bashfully. “It was all mixed together, you know, to start with, so we just kept going that way.”

Mrs. Loving, who died in 2008, is especially winning in these old clips, tall and lovely, an elegant young woman who folds herself meekly into chairs in the far corner of the room but looks directly into the camera with shy dignity.

She grew up in the same community and didn’t really pay attention to the Jim Crow laws that ruled the world around her.

“You know the white and colored went to school different, things like that, you know, they couldn’t go to the same restaurants,” she says softly. “I knew that, but I didn’t realize how bad it was until we got married.”

Mrs. Loving wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, then the United States attorney general, asking for help, which came from the American Civil Liberties Union. At least half the film focuses on the legal battle to strike down Judge Bazile’s decision, a struggle that was finally resolved by the Supreme Court in 1967.

“The Supreme Court held today that marriages of whites and Negroes are legal and no state may stop them,” is how David Brinkley, then an NBC News anchor, described the decision. The ruling was unanimous, and Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion.

But it’s the Lovings, not Loving v. Virginia, that hold our attention. Their reticence, even under such close camera scrutiny, is intriguing and even charming. They met when Mildred was 11 and Richard was 17. “It was love at first sight,” their daughter, Peggy, says in an interview.

Actually, it wasn’t, and the way Mrs. Loving tells it is much better. “When we first met I didn’t like him, I don’t know, he was arrogant,” she says softly. “But I got to know him and he was a very nice person.” (Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times)