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Loving: An Intimate Story That Changed America

  • Penelope Poulou

Based on a true story, Loving offers an intimate portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a black woman, who in 1957 defied the miscegenation laws of Virginia to marry. The events that followed changed America.

When Mildred Jeter was about five months pregnant, Richard Loving asked her to marry him. His decision was met with resistance from his family and skepticism from hers. In 1950s Virginia, it was unheard of that a white man would marry a black woman; but, Richard loved Mildred and couldn’t live without her.

They married in the nation’s capital. However, their interracial union was illegal under the Racial Integrity Act of Virginia, where they lived. They were arrested, accused of a crime and found guilty.

The couple had to leave Virginia or face prison. In 1958, they moved to Washington, D.C., away from friends and family, where they raised three children. But, Mildred was homesick and longed to return to her native Virginia.

Actor Joel Edgerton, left, Peggy Loving a daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving, actress Ruth Negga and director Jeff Nichols attend the premiere of "Loving" at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, Oct. 26, 2016, in New York.

Actor Joel Edgerton, left, Peggy Loving a daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving, actress Ruth Negga and director Jeff Nichols attend the premiere of "Loving" at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, Oct. 26, 2016, in New York.

ACLU steps in

Five years later, in 1963, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, she wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, asking for help overturning the Racial Integrity Act. She was contacted by the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose pro bono lawyers encouraged the couple to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Loving vs. Virginia became a landmark case that overturned miscegenation laws around the country. Their story — captured in intimate family pictures taken in their home by renowned LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet in 1966 — moved America, but in the decades that followed, was forgotten.

With Loving, Jeff Nichols has brought it back into the nation’s consciousness.

The filmmaker relied on historical footage and Nancy Buirski’s 2011 in-depth documentary, The Loving Story, about the couple.

This feature film’s power lies in the way Nichols portrays a nuanced, deep love between two people whose only desire is to live a life together. Using intimate close-ups, Nichols locks his frame on the couple’s faces. He told VOA that through the close-ups he wanted to convey their entrapped life.

“They are in a prison even though they are moving around and they are walking around. So I wanted movement, but I wanted the camera to be locked on them. It was a very specific type of shooting. Probably one of the most precise films I’ve ever directed.”

During the red carpet event at the recently inaugurated African-American museum in Washington, Nichols spoke to VOA about the Oscar buzz his film has generated.

Part of American history

“It’s flattering and humbling,” he said, “but what’s important here is the story we’re trying to tell, Richard’s and Mildred’s story. I didn’t know it in 2012 when I first heard about it, and that’s shameful! This is a fundamental part of our American history.”

Actress Ruth Negga pours her heart into the character of Mildred. Her soulful performance has earned her acclaim. She told VOA what really inspired her to play the reluctant activist was her admiration for her character’s immense courage.

“How do we find out who we are really? Usually, it’s when we are in peril. When we are forced to find out who we are. And I think that when our true colors show, then we discover our grit and our integrity.”

Asked if a film such as Loving could speak to wide audiences in America’s current climate of political polarization, Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard Loving, said yes.

“You know,” he said, “we keep running into the same problems that will always be there, so it’s always good to have new stories and sometimes gentle stories that allow us to take a walk — an empathetic walk — in someone else’s shoes to help us start to examine where there was judgment in our own minds. I think it is a very special film that will resonate.”

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