A recent poll found that 46% of Mississippi Republicans believe that interracial marriage should be illegal, and although such a poll may only have limited implications, it does show that attitudes about race and sexual desire remain contested in contemporary American culture over four decades after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The arguments about interracial marriage have reverberated for decades, and it’s not too much of a stretch to connect those taboos to more recent debates about gay marriage, and while many of these present-day complications reverberate within Nancy Buirski’s documentary debut, The Loving Story, what Buirski offers is not a simple talking-heads exploration of the ideas that informed the debate but a more profound and poetic exploration of the people who were somewhat reluctantly at the center of this national debate: Richard and Mildred Loving, a white construction worker and an African-American and Cherokee woman, who were convicted, briefly jailed, and forced into exile, because they chose to marry.
Buirski takes the unexpected and striking approach of allowing home movies and other archival footage to do much of the “talking” in the film. Both Richard and Mildred Loving have passed away–in fact Richard was killed by a drunk driver only a few years after the Supreme Court case–so their voices seem to come from beyond the grave, with most descriptions of them being provided by their daughter. What emerges from the archival footage is a portrait of a gentle, affectionate couple, with Mildred quietly elegant and Richard appearing somewhat shy. Shots of Richard resting his head in Mildred’s lap at home or of the couple subtly touching each other’s hands while walking into one of many court rooms shows their affection for each other. Both emerge as relatively unlikely activists: Richard’s crew cut and his penchant for racing cars and Mildred’s reserve make them seem less political, but after Mildred write a letter about their situation to Robert Kennedy, who recommends that they contact the ACLU, they are thrust into the spotlight.
The lawyers who took the case, Philip Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen were also unlikely heroes. Hirschkop, in fact, had only been out of law school for a couple of years, while Cohen had been out of law school for three years. Watching them talk publicly about the case in the 1960s was also quite powerful, an contemporary interviews with Cohen and Hirschkop help to ground the film narratively. I’m still contemplating some of Buirski’s formal and storytelling choices, but I think the film reflects the quiet gentleness of the figures at the center of the case. When Cohen asked Richard Loving if there was anything he wanted to tell the Supreme Court, Cohen tells us that Richard said simply, “Tell them I love her.” Through the archival materials, gently interwoven with contemporary interviews, Buirski relates a powerful ove story that has left a powerful mark on American culture.