Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage
Eminently serious with a playful title, writer-director-producer and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival founder Nancy Buirski’s début feature The Loving Story was “stitched together” in 2011, still gathers awards and is the “Valentine’s Day Special Back by Popular Demand” at Maysles Cinema in Harlem. The largely black-and-white hour-and-a-quarter had been scheduled even before the boost of Virginia Federal District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen’s Valentine’s eve citing the film -- other judges had done so in previous cases -- and quoting Mildred Jeter Loving while declaring null and void that state’s same-sex marriage ban.
The documentary’s promo still pictures slender luminous smiling African- and Native-American Mildred full-face lovingly looking at husband Richard, his broad-shouldered back squarely toward the camera. Half of their team of barely out of law school American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, Philip Hirschkop, today remarks that the crew-cut check-shirted construction worker husband looked and sounded the stereotypical redneck -- “His neck was red”-- and, at first at least, came across as less friendly and articulate.
In their racially mixed farming community around Central Point, everyone grew up together and helped one another, but the state’s Racial Integrity Act forced Richard and a pregnant Mildred to marry in Washington, D.C., for which they were arrested in their bedroom on returning home. Referencing the Lord’s separating the races on different continents, Judge Bazile sentenced them to a year’s incarceration, suspended on condition the couple exile themselves from the Commonwealth.
The world will always welcome lovers, although Virginia is not for all lovers.
The wife in particular found urban life unpleasant, even with clandestine visits home to their families. Five years into marriage, she was referred by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the ACLU, which filed a motion to vacate the original decision and sentence. Interrupting often with shots of countryside from inside a moving car--perhaps to give some sense of the area -- and stills of the children to furnish a sense of family, the film seems less motion picture than static slide show in coving the convolutions of appeals and opinions at district, state and federal levels, on up to the Supreme Court of the nation.
Much of the strategy explanation falls to co-counsel, Bernard S. Cohen, seated in old color at that time with Hirschkop in front of a wall of bound legal annals, in b&w outside lower courthouses, and then in 2011 color looking back.
On June 12, 1967 -- now celebrated as unofficial annual Loving Day -- Chief Justice Earl Warren read the unanimous nine-man decision that anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional. In spite of the It Is So Ordered that any such laws be stricken, not until the new millennium did Alabama became the last of the states to comply.
The couple did not attend oral arguments before the Court, but Cohen relayed Richard’s message that “I love my wife, and it is unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” He did not see himself as pioneer or crusader, yet his straightforward humanity and style cannot but win one to him. He was to live only eight more years until a drunk driver plowed into his car in that same Caroline County in Virginia; Mildred lost an eye in the crash but survived another thirty-three years.
An earlier, 1996 fiction, Mr. & Mrs. Loving, was “not much of it true,” according to her, except “that I had three children.”
Come to public attention again, the non-fiction is essential for its subject matter, relevant still to hot-button marriage and Fourteenth Amendment issues. However, even with rediscovered home movies, it does not take off as film per se. Brief archival footage is too isolated for historical perspective, and seconds of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner gloss are lost. Not to take away from the film’s importance, the whole is like Richard Loving, stolid and admirable but not inspiring.
(Released by HBO Films; not rated by MPAA.)