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HBO’s ‘The Loving Story’: A resilient romance that changed history

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Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple who successfully fought the state’s miscegenation laws all the way to a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967, will forever be symbols of a civil-rights love story. He was white; she was a mix of black and American Indian. They grew up in Caroline County, southeast of Fredericksburg, and married in 1958, when Mildred was 18 and Richard was 24. In 1959, they were arrested and jailed for being a mixed-race couple. The rest belongs to history and the law books.

It’s interesting how much we can know the basic outline of such an event and yet not really know the participants. “The Loving Story,” director Nancy Buirski’s engaging HBO documentary (a Valentine’s Day treat, airing Tuesday night), rescues the Lovings from the perfunctory realm of footnotes and newspaper clippings and brings them into a more emotional light.

How did they meet? What were they like? What did she love about him? What did he love about her? How did they and their three children persevere for nearly a decade as their case worked its way through appeals?

Buirski’s film is greatly aided by seldom seen archival material, most notably some 16mm reels shot in the 1960s by Hope Ryden and Abbot Mills. These are casual interviews with Mildred and Richard at home, filmed while the Loving children romp and frolic about. Ryden and Mills also filmed the Lovings going to and from their court dates in Richmond with their determined young attorneys, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop.

“The Loving Story” also makes use of Life magazine photographer Grey Villet’s beautiful images (currently on exhibit in New York), which provide fuller insights into just how simply the family lived. The Lovings were deeply attached to Caroline County, home to all their friends and relatives. Life in their rural community ranged from wary tolerance to mutual acceptance — or so they believed.

After their initial release from jail, the Lovings moved across the Potomac, but they were uncomfortable with big-city life in Washington and so they sneaked back into Virginia, risking imprisonment by secretly setting up house in a cabin on his family’s land.

“The Loving Story” sometimes feels rushed and dutiful. It gets distracted from matters of the heart, turning instead to the necessary task of recounting Loving v. Virginia’s journey to a courtroom climax. There are interviews with historians, activists, neighbors and retired officials from Caroline County who remember the Lovings and the effect the case had on the community. It also features interviews with the Lovings’ daughter, Peggy. (Mildred, who largely avoided press attention as the years went on, died in 2008 at age 68; Richard was killed by a drunk driver in 1975 when he was 41.)

An essential, stoic bashfulness manages to keep the couple at a remove, even now, even with such a tender documentary treatment. The Lovings weren’t media savvy, but the camera loved them all the same. Mildred, with her lovely smile and natural sense of calm, does most of the talking as broad-shouldered, crew-cutted Richard comes and goes, performing his chores.

Together they looked like what would happen if Big Moose from the “Archie” comics had wooed Lena Horne. Clearly, the attention made them feel awkward; the last thing they wanted was a fuss, but when trouble came, they faced it with courage. Mildred was the one with the presence of mind to write to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy seeking legal advice; she was the one who would talk to reporters on the courthouse steps while her husband often stared at his shoes. Whenever the Lovings went to court or their lawyers’ offices, Richard would say little while Mildred took careful notes in neat penmanship.

“I had a natural, first negative reaction to Mr. Loving,” Hirschkop recalls, “because I had been in the Deep South and I was very suspicious of people who looked like rednecks, and boy, he looked like a redneck. He had a red neck. . . . What came through about the two of them was just what everyone said — they were very much in love. This was a guy, who, if you took the caricature of him, he would have left her. He didn’t need all that grief. He was a white guy, he was ruling class. But [leaving her] was never a question. It was never a possibility.”

Their story is a powerful statement about freedom. Present-day advocates for gay marriage frequently look to the Lovings’ victory for a shot of the spirit, but the fact is, anyone could spend their Valentine’s evening watching “The Loving Story” and come away with a renewed belief in love’s resilience.

The Loving Story

(78 minutes) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

© The Washington Post Company