Richard and Mildred Loving were at the center of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in the 1960s – Loving v. Virginia. But you probably haven’t heard their story. Jeff Nichols hadn’t either.
“I thought I was pretty well up to speed on our Civil Rights history,” Nichols says. “This should be kind of a foundational story in our American history. I’m not quite sure why it’s not taught in schools, why we don’t understand it.”
Richard was white and Mildred was Black. They got married in 1958 in Washington, D.C. But at the time, more than a dozen states banned interracial marriage – including Texas and the Lovings’ home state of Virginia. When the newlyweds tried to set up a home there, they were confronted by police in their own bedroom, in the middle of the night.
The Lovings were jailed, then ordered to leave the state or face prison time. They weren’t happy with that offer, but they also weren’t natural activists.
“They were not looking for a cause or looking to be symbols,” Nichols says. “They just loved one another and were confused as to why that wasn’t ok or wasn’t allowed in the state of Virginia at the time.”
Nichols follows the story of Richard and Mildred as they start their family in another state – away from their own families and everything they’ve known. But while Virginia didn’t love the Lovings, the Lovings loved Virginia. They eventually decided to seek legal help to get back home.
The film is factual but it’s not heavy on highlighting all of the facts. Nichols says he explores people in his films – that’s the focus here – the couple behind Loving v. Virginia, not the case itself. It’s the first time he’s made a film that wasn’t based solely on his own ideas and imagination, but he says he knew very early on that this was a good fit for him.
“I think the Loving story fell into the wheelhouse of my aesthetic as a filmmaker – which is to make very quiet films, things that play out in a linear narrative trajectory. I don’t do flashbacks really or anything like that,” he says. “But mainly it’s because of the Lovings themselves. And I think, had I made this film in a different way – maybe a more bombastic way, or maybe part courtroom drama – it wouldn’t have represented their point of view or their approach as much.”
The film explores the complexities of race relations, the subject of police abuse of power and the sometimes glacial pace of change. The Lovings’ story played out decades ago. But in the story, Nichols sees relevance and lessons for America today.
“That’s what the Lovings do for us, they say, ‘Ok, you’re going to be having these debates for a very long time to come. Just remember us. Remember that we were here at the center of it,’” Nichols says. “Maybe that doesn’t change some people’s minds when it comes to their ideas of race or marriage equality but perhaps, for a moment, it gives them pause and makes them think about the tenor of their conversation.”
“Loving” hits theaters across Texas this weekend.