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In many ways, Richard and Mildred Loving were a typical couple. They grew up in the same Virginia town, fell in love and decided to cement their relationship by marrying. Because she was part-black and part-Native American, and he was white, however, their 1958 marriage was declared illegal by their home state.
But the Lovings fought back and ultimately changed history through a watershed Supreme Court case that overturned bans on interracial marriage in 16 states. The exclusive HBO documentary The Loving Story, the uplifting saga of these unlikely Civil Rights heroes, debuts on Valentine’s Day, Tuesday, February 14 during Black History Month.
Married in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were arrested in their home state of Virginia five weeks later and subsequently convicted of the felony crime of miscegenation. To avoid a one-year jail sentence, they agreed to leave the state, and could only return to Virginia separately. But that was just the beginning of their story.
he Loving Story features never-before-seen vintage film and stills of the Loving family shot in 1965 and 1966, as well as compelling present-day interviews with the Lovings’ daughter Peggy, neighbors, police and their intrepid ACLU lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, who argued the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that finally brought justice to the Lovings.
The luminous, newly discovered 16mm footage of the Lovings and their lawyers, which was shot by filmmakers Hope Ryden and Abbot Mills, and photographs by acclaimed LIFE photographer Grey Villet capture the intimate realities of the Lovings’ daily lives. The prints were given to the Loving family by the photographer 45 years ago and given to the filmmakers in 2010. (A selection of these photos is currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York through May 6.)
After the Lovings failed to have their convictions overturned at the state level, ACLU attorneys Cohen and Hirschkop sought a federal forum, and Loving v. Virginia was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 10, 1967. Through his attorneys, Richard Loving said to the justices, “Tell the court that I love my wife, and it is unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings, striking down the prohibition of interracial marriage in 16 states in a breakthrough decision that continues to shape America’s attitude towards marriage to this day.
Neither dedicated activists nor participants in the protests of their time, the Lovings spent nine years simply trying to be able to live legally in their home state, and on their journey became little-known heroes of the Civil Rights era. They didn’t ask to be heroes. They just wanted to be happy.
Director and producer Nancy Buirski says the message of the film is both timeless and timely. Although depicting a universal love story, it comes at a time when, she says, “white supremacy groups are growing in the U.S. – in the very communities that perpetuated and maintained anti-miscegenation laws up to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling. While we’ve elected the first mixed-race president, we also recently witnessed a Louisiana justice of the peace refusing to marry a mixed-race couple.
“Contemporary parallels are gently embedded in the Lovings’ fight for marriage equality. Today, 45 years after Loving v. Virginia, Perry v. Schwarzenegger is making its way to the Supreme Court. This is a story not of just civil rights, but of human rights and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of religion, race or gender.”
The Loving Story was an official selection at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and Heartland Film Festival, and won the WGA Screenplay Award at the 2011 SilverDocs Festival.
Nancy Buirski is the founder and former director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Her credits include producing five collections of documentary shorts, as well as “Time Piece,” an omnibus documentary combining stories of Turkish and American filmmakers. The film has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.