The Love Story That Made Marriage a Fundamental Right

A new documentary brings to life Richard and Mildred Loving's quiet activism against race-mixing laws at this week's Tribeca Film Festival.

By Asraa Mustufa Apr 27, 2011

The Tribeca Film Festival is under way in New York, and one featured documentary delves into the story behind the landmark civil rights case Loving vs. Virginia, which struck down Jim Crow laws meant to prevent people from openly building families across racial lines.  

Mildred and Richard Loving were an interracial couple that married in Washington, D.C., in 1958. Shortly after re-entering their hometown in Virginia, the pair was arrested in their bedroom and banished from the state for 25 years. The Lovings would spend the next nine years in exile, surreptitiously visiting family and friends back home in Virginia–and fighting for the right to return legally. Their case wound its way to the Supreme Court and, in 1967, the Court condemned Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act as a measure "designed to maintain white supremacy" that violated due process and equal protection. The ruling deemed the anti-miscegenation laws in effect in 16 states at the time unconstitutional. However, it took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until the year 2000 to officially remove language prohibiting interracial marriage from their state constitutions.

The landmark case has returned to popular consciousness in recent years as states have debated same-sex marriage rights. Marriage equality advocates have pointed to the Lovings’ fight as a foundational part of American history, establishing marriage as a basic civil right. But for decades it was left to the footnotes of civil rights history, overshadowed by blockbuster cases like Brown vs. Board of Education. 

Director Nancy Buirski’s "The Loving Story" aims to deepen public understanding of not just the case but the Loving family itself. The filmmakers recreate their story through interviews with their friends, community members and the attorneys fighting their case. Buirski and her team revived unused footage of the Lovings from 45 years ago, including home movies, and dug up old photographs to bring the couple to life. As a result, the film is as much an engaging love story as it is a history of racist lawmaking.  

"The Loving Story" is making the film festival rounds this year and will air on HBO in February 2012. I spoke with Buirski after the film’s Tribeca screening this week.

Why did you want to make this film?

I came across an obituary on Mildred Loving in 2008 and I realized when reading the story that she had an incredible life. She was an amazingly compelling character, partly because she was not your typical activist, who had set out to make change. You know, she was not a civil rights activist. She was a woman that was trying to return to her home in Virginia after being exiled for 25 years because she had married a white man. And he, too, was not someone who was your typical change the world kind of guy. He really loved his wife and felt the exile that the state had forced them into was simply wrong. And so what they wanted to do was right a wrong, but they weren’t trying to change history, and I felt that that was an unusual way to approach a civil rights event and the change that resulted from their actions.

What do you think is the relevance of the Lovings’ story today, in 2011?

There’s a tremendous amount of relevance. This is not just a civil rights story, it’s a human rights story. And we are talking about the freedom to choose who you love and who you can marry and clearly there are relevant concerns around those issues today in gay marriage rights. 

I think other relevance comes from the identification that some mixed-race couples and mixed-race children have in society. Even though many of us take that for granted, it’s not necessarily as easy as it may seem to be part of a mixed-race relationship. I think the thing that connects the two situations, in 1967 and 2011, is the thing that motivates a lot of people to try to stop people from marrying–the intolerance and the prejudice that bubbles up in 2011, not only about gay marriage but even about immigrant reform. I think it has to do with fear. I believe that fear was a motivating factor when the Lovings were arrested and I believe fear is also a motivating factor in the intolerance that we see in society today.

Can you tell us more about Peggy Loving, the couple’s only surviving daughter? How does she feel about the case and the film?  

You know, she’s very proud of her parents. She knows exactly what they achieved. She says whenever she watches a mixed-race couple walk down the street, arm in arm, she knows that that might not be the case if it weren’t for her parents, and she gets kind of emotional when she thinks about that. She likes to think of herself as a kind of rainbow, mixed, she feels it’s important that people recognize her mixed-race heritage and she’s very proud of it. And I think she loves the film.

How about the Lovings’ lawyers? They’re both still alive. Did they share any views, all these years later?

Philip Hirschkop [one of the Lovings’ attorneys] said recently that the fear and the prejudice that pervades our society today is a reminder of what the Lovings went through, and even though they prevailed, there’s nothing that could give them back their nine years of exile and separation from their family. And so we may take it for granted, but we really should be remembering how people like the Lovings struggled to get us where we are today.

So you were inspired after reading Loving’s obituary. Tell us about the long road from there to Tribeca.

Oh, you know, it’s three years later and it is a long process, but it’s an exciting one. You really just  have to believe in the story and believe in the way you want to tell the story. And I think the most important thing was recognizing the value of the footage that we had and the photographs, and because we had such intimate material, allowing the Lovings to tell their own story. So we’ve made a historical film in a somewhat unusual style because there is no narrator, there’s no voice of God explaining to us what’s happening. It’s basically following the Lovings and their daughter and other people who knew them, allowing them to tell the story.

Is there anything else you wanted to say about the film?

[The film’s editor] Elisabeth Haviland James and and I both felt a real obligation to bring this story to a really wide audience and the fact that the depth of the story, the real story about this couple and their love have been overlooked for so many years. We really felt a commitment to bring this to a wider audience and we’re very grateful that we’re getting the response that we’re getting.

Do you feel like there’s any reason that it was overlooked? Because it was a landmark civil rights case and yet…

I think there were a number of other landmark cases and changes that were taking place just prior to this, and they tended to overtake this one because, you know, you had voting rights, you had Brown vs. Board of Education, you had people struggling for public accommodation, you know, the freedom to sit where they want to sit on the bus. Those felt a little more urgent than this did, so I think that’s one reason.  

I think another reason is that the Lovings themselves were so humble and shy they didn’t particularly want publicity. And they were also in danger, because they were going back and forth to Virginia where they were supposedly prohibited from doing that, so they really needed to protect themselves and their family. And then finally, the fact that this was a case that dealt with the bedroom, that tended not to get the biggest publicity. Voting rights was an easier thing for people to deal with.

"The Loving Story" screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and will play at the Silverdocs Festival in Washington, D.C., in June. The ACLU will be hosting a D.C. showing on Capitol Hill on June 13. Buirski and the Lovings’ attorney Phil Hirschkop will hold a panel discussion this evening after a screening at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

*This article has been altered since publication.