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Loving v. Virginia was decided 50 years ago. This HBO documentary explores the couple at its center.

The landmark Supreme Court case struck down laws against interracial marriage in the US.

Richard and Mildred Loving, who were at the center of the case which struck down laws against interracial marriage in the US 50 years ago.
Richard and Mildred Loving, who were at the center of the case which struck down laws against interracial marriage in the US 50 years ago.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for June 17 to 23 is The Loving Story (2011), which is available to stream on HBO Go and digitally rent on Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down laws against interracial marriage in the United States.

When Mildred and Richard Loving’s case came before the Supreme Court, 21 states — including Virginia, where the couple lived — had “anti-miscegenation” laws on the books. The Lovings were rural Virginians; he was white, she was of African-American and Native American descent. They married legally in the District of Columbia and returned home to Virginia, but were awoken in the middle of the night by a flashlight, wielded by a sheriff, who had entered their home and demanded to know why they thought they could be together in the same bed. Eventually, the judge offered them a deal: If they left Virginia for 25 years, they wouldn’t go to jail.

They moved to DC, had children, and began raising them there. But eventually, the Lovings decided to return to Virginia to be near their families. This led to a set of cases as well as jail time that, eventually, attracted the attention of the ACLU, which had been searching for a case that would test and overturn such laws in the US. And in 1967, they did just that.

A film based on the Lovings’ life, Jeff Nichols’s Loving, came out in 2016, with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in the leading roles. That film is well worth watching. But in an HBO documentary titled The Loving Story, the couple tell their own story, in their own words.

Richard and Mildred Loving in Virginia
Richard and Mildred Loving in Virginia

The most remarkable thing about the Lovings may simply be their reticence to be in the spotlight — they steered clear as much as possible of being the “face” of a cause, trying mostly just to live their lives quietly. As a result of their reluctance, most people knew more about Loving v Virginia than the Lovings.

So The Loving Story is valuable as a fuller, more expansively humanized portrait of the couple than you could get from the newsreels and history books. (The film forms the basis for the portrayals of Richard and Mildred in Nichols’s film.)

But it’s also just a strong and riveting look at one of the most important and consequential Supreme Court cases in American history. Striking down anti-miscegenation laws was an important blow to segregation and a victory for civil rights activists in the 1960s. And it has also been cited in many cases since, including Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which made same-sex marriage legal in the United States.

And the couple at its center were just two rural Virginians who wanted to live their lives with each other and their children, quietly, without threat of violence or separation by the law. They don’t seem to have ever thought they’d be famous — but their courage in the face of opposition had huge consequences for many.

Watch the trailer for The Loving Story: