Before You See ‘Loving,’ Watch This Documentary About the Real-Life Couple

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  • Jeff Nichols
    Film director
  • Joel Edgerton
    Joel Edgerton
    Australian actor
LOVING, from left: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, 2016. ph: Ben Rothstein / © Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving. (Photo: Ben Rothstein/©Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection)

Writer-director Jeff Nichols will officially enter the Oscar race when Loving hits theaters in limited release on Friday. Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the Midnight Special director’s latest is based on the real-life case of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple (he was white; she was African-American and Native American) who found themselves convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute after they married in 1958. Their subsequent fight for justice eventually took them to the Supreme Court, where their triumph forever struck down such laws as unconstitutional. It’s stirring dramatic material in the hands of Nichols, who won raves earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. However, for those who can’t wait for Loving’s multiplex arrival, there’s another feature-length option that also tells their tale in detailed, affecting fashion.

Related: Cannes Report: ‘Loving’ Earns Praise for Its History-Making Love Story

Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, functions as the nonfiction mirror image of Nichols’s feature, and it’s currently available to stream via HBO GO. Buirski’s film hits upon virtually every moment found in Nichols’s version, not only in terms of its imagery but also down to the very anecdotes and remembrances recounted by interviewees. In that regard, it does much to underscore the authenticity of Nichols’s drama. And yet more than merely a template for Loving, Buirski’s effort is a vital — and, in some regards, more compelling — companion piece.

Watch the trailer for the documentary:

With a patience emblematic of its subjects’ own composed handling of their circumstances, The Loving Story relates Richard and Mildred’s initial arrest, their conviction — which stipulated that they could not return to Virginia together for a period of 25 years — and their repeated attempts to circumvent that ruling. They finally caught a break when Mildred wrote Attorney General Robert Kennedy requesting relief and was put in touch with the ACLU. The lawyers assigned to the case, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop (played in Loving by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass), were relative neophytes, but their dedication to the Lovings’ cause was staunch, and in clips of them debating strategy, The Loving Story conveys the gamesmanship that went into their eventual victory. (You can actually hear their Supreme Court oral arguments here.)

The archival footage is amazing: Whether it’s Richard grudgingly standing before journalists, the couple sitting for an on-camera interview in their modest farmhouse home while their kids run around, or Mildred’s recollection of a sheriff threatening to stick a hardened convict in her jail cell, Buirski’s film provides plenty of moments that are expertly recreated in Nichols’s Loving. At the same time, though, her documentary’s purview proves wider. Using a wealth of news footage from the era, it shrewdly takes into account the bigger legacy of segregation, oppression, and white supremacy in the South.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Virginia law banning marriage between African Americans and Caucasians was unconstitutional, thus nullifying similar statues in 15 other states. The decision came in a case involving Richard Perry Loving, a white construction worker and his African American wife, Mildred. The couple married in the District of Columbia in 1958 and were arrested upon their return to their native Caroline County, Virginia. They were given one year suspended sentences on condition that they stay out of the state for 25 years. The Lovings decided in 1963 to return home and fight banishment, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The real-life Mildred and Richard Loving. (Photo: Getty Images)

In such big-picture passages, The Loving Story captures the full scope of what Richard and Mildred were up against. At the same time, it maintains intimate focus on their unassuming dispositions, their steadfast loyalty to each other, and their dedication to fostering a better, fairer future for their children, one of whom speaks glowingly about them in a new interview. While it may not have garnered quite the same mainstream acclaim that Nichols’s Loving will likely receive when it debuts Nov. 4 in New York and L.A. (and around the country on Nov. 11), Buirski’s film is a work of conviction, power, and heart — and a stirring tribute to the couple whose love wound up forever changing the nation.

Watch a clip from Loving: