Nancy Buirski’s laid-back docu concerns the aptly named Lovings — white Richard and black/Native American Mildred, whose 1958 marriage led to their arrest for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, as well as to a Supreme Court case that overturned such statutes in 16 states. Surprisingly, the portrait that emerges from the film’s copious 16mm homemovie images and conversations with friends and relations is that of an affectionate couple, fully accepted and at ease in their interracial community, but persecuted by a sheriff whose racism found widespread currency elsewhere in Virginia. Fascinating HBO docu is skedded to air in February.
Given a suspended sentence and banished from Old Dominion, the Lovings moved to Washington, D.C., but found themselves ill suited to urban life and often snuck back home for extended periods. Evocative snapshots by Life photographer Grey Villet show the Lovings’ three young children happily perched in trees, or the whole family gleefully grouped together around the porch.
Tired of their years-long clandestine existence and inspired by the civil rights movement unfolding around them (illustrated with newsreel clips that ran on TV at the time) , Mildred Loving wrote a letter to then-Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy, who promptly referred her to the ACLU. Never were the Lovings seeking to do anything more than gain the right to return home. But they proved willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to achieve that right.
Next, extensive archival and present-day interviews recount the adventures of the two young attorneys barely out of law school, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, who were handed a case of tremendous precedent-setting import. The two discuss their defense position at great length with each other, the Lovings and the press in concurrent on-camera coverage as the ongoing legal drama passes through lesser Virginia venues to the U.S. Supreme Court. The docu includes audio excerpts of the fledgling lawyers’ arguments to the highest court in the nation, which then handed down a unanimous decision in the Lovings’ favor.
What astonishes in Buirski’s docu is not just the quantity and quality of the black-and-white 16mm footage, but its unpressured candor, particularly in the harsh light of current media feeding frenzies. While Richard Loving registers as clearly uncomfortable in the public spotlight, Mildred treats the lawyers, the reporters and all comers with the same friendly, casual articulateness and serene lack of self-consciousness with which she might greet a neighbor. The Lovings’ unprepossessing affection, evident in every frame of their homemovies, forms a perfect intimate counterpoint to the historical upheaval and ultimate rendering of justice.
Production values are pro, and Elisabeth Haviland James’ sensitive editing serves the vault material well.