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'Loving' Tells Story Of Supreme Court Ruling Legalizing Interracial Marriage


The surname Loving seems almost too good to be true for plaintiffs challenging interracial marriage laws before the Supreme Court. But that's the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who wed in 1958.


MILDRED LOVING: We went to Washington to be married. People had been mixing all the time, so I didn't know any different. I didn't know there was a law against it.

CORNISH: That's Mildred Loving's voice in the 2011 HBO documentary "The Loving Story." It documents their Supreme Court battle with the state of Virginia, which ended in 1967 and overturned anti-miscegenation laws across the country. It was a story that Jeff Nichols, director of the new feature film "Loving," didn't know.

JEFF NICHOLS: At the core, I fell in love with these people. And I fell in love with their love story. You know, not to sound too hyperbolic, but I was struck by what I think is one of the greatest love stories in American history that I didn't know about. And that was part of the calculation to do this. You know, I was approached with the documentary in 2012. And for that to be the first time that I heard about Richard and Mildred Loving was kind of unacceptable to me. I think this is something that people more than just law students that have taken constitutional law classes, you know, should have a familiarity with, especially now.

CORNISH: You've called this one of the greatest love stories in American history.


CORNISH: What is it about Richard Loving, Mildred Loving that confers that status? What is it about the way they were with each other that you wanted to show in the film?

NICHOLS: I mean, you could just - you could just feel the love between them. You could feel how they cared for one another. I think it's quite evident in these photographs from Grey Villet. We end the film with a photograph that Grey Villet took for Life magazine. And it kind of says everything about the whole story, to me. You look at that photograph and immediately, you're struck by the fact that - its period - it's the '50s or the '60s. You have a black woman sitting on her couch with a white man who looks totally like a redneck. He's in these worker boots and has big, thick hands. And he's laying very delicately in her lap. Already, that's an - it's an odd position for a man to be in, kind of. And they're both laughing.

And when I look at that picture, it just speaks to the complexity of what their lives were. But it also speaks to the joy that was at the center of them. And that's kind of what I wanted to show with the film is the sincerity that they had for one another and the love they had for one another, but also their complexity that all of that rested in.

CORNISH: They don't say very much in the movie. It's a very quiet film. And when they do speak to each other, it isn't very - I would say it's not verbose.


CORNISH: Was this a result of just not knowing very much about how they spoke and things like that or did - was this a conscious decision?

NICHOLS: I think it reflects the personality that I was able to witness in this archival footage that's used in the documentary, but also even in the Grey Villet photographs, the Life magazine photographer that documented them. You see this very specific man in Richard. He was a man that I think was much like my grandfather. And I based a lot of the specifics of Richard on my grandfather. I think there are men like this that are blue-collar, working-class men that are unable to articulate their feelings and their frustrations and their emotions. My grandfather was like that, and I think Richard was like that.

And something interesting happens in a marriage when you're married to a man like that. I think the woman in that relationship has to become the emotional voice of that family. They have to be the ones to give the hugs and write the birthday cards. But in Richard and Mildred's case, Mildred actually had to become really the motivating factor in pursuing this court case.

CORNISH: Right, she becomes the one who - instead of birthday cards, she writes Bobby Kennedy (laughter)...

NICHOLS: A letter to Bobby Kennedy, absolutely.

CORNISH: ...To the attorney general.

NICHOLS: Absolutely, and, you know, I felt like, though, through my grandparents, who obviously - they were not interracial, but they had a marriage like this.

CORNISH: One aspect of focusing on their courtship, their love story and of their marriage is you don't get a sense of them, I guess, politically. Do you think of them as activists?

NICHOLS: No, and I don't think they would describe themselves as such. You know, I think - you have Mildred definitely evolving as a person and as a person in relation to the world around her. Now, that being said, you know, she's blocks away from the marches in '63, and she's not out there. She's not that type of activist.

The thing that people didn't like about them is that they existed. They didn't like that they existed at all. And their answer to that was to continue living together. That was their defiance. He could have divorced her. She could have divorced him and conceivably lived together and not had this burden. But that wasn't acceptable to them. So that is a form of activism, but it's also an expression of love. I don't think they stayed together because of a movement. I think they stayed together because they loved each other.

CORNISH: What, if any, like, hesitations did you have saying, OK, I'm a white guy from Little Rock, Ark. Should I be the one to tell this story?

NICHOLS: Yeah, it crossed my mind. I think I would have to be completely disingenuous to say I didn't think about it. But the funny thing is, I never thought about it in relationship to the story. I always thought about it in relationship to how people would judge me telling the story. And those two things are very different. I never felt separated, somehow, from Richard or separated from Mildred or the things they were going through. I was filled with empathy for them. From the moment I watched the documentary, I was connected to the sincerity of their love for one another. I was connected to the love they had for the South and for this place, in this home, despite the fact that no one wanted them there. I never questioned any of those connections. I just questioned how people would judge me at the end of the day, and that's not a good enough reason not to do something.

CORNISH: You know, so many kind of period pieces reflect the time in which they're made (laughter), in a way, more than the time in which they're set.


CORNISH: To your mind, what about today are you reflecting in this film in terms of our attitudes now?

NICHOLS: Equality is a - as a concept, is something we never really achieve as a society. We definitely make progress. But it's never going to be a thing that we check a box on and put it aside and say, well, we've got that taken care of. And what it really says to me is every generation has to hold the idea of equality up for themselves and say how are we going to define it? - so in 10, 20, 30 years when people look back on our generation right now and say, how did they do?

And what I find so beautiful about Richard and Mildred is they show us how to have that conversation. They show us to remember that there are people at the center of it. And maybe if you can think about the daily life of the Lovings and how that wasn't offensive to anyone - how could that possibly be offensive to anyone? - which is what I hope to kind of get through in the film - that maybe when people are having these conversations and find themselves on different sides, they'll just temper their speech a little bit. Maybe they'll add some humanity to it.

CORNISH: Well, Jeff Nichols, thank you so much for talking with us about this film.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Jeff Nichols, director of the movie "Loving," out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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