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TV Tonight: The Loving Story

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For Richard and Mildred Loving, their marriage was a pretty simple matter. They grew up in a small Virginia town where everyone pretty much knew everyone, fell in love (not without some obstacles; she found him “arrogant” at first) and got hitched.

For the enforcers of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, their marriage was also a simple matter: Richard was white and Mildred was black.

And because, as the argument went, the Lord God had created the races each in different parts of the world to keep them separate, for them to intermarry was in contravention of his divine plan and an abomination. So in 1958, they were rousted from their own bed, arrested and jailed; they were released on condition that they leave the state.

HBO’s The Loving Story, debuting tonight, is a low-key but moving documentary about these two low-key people and their moving struggle, which eventually led to a 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country. It was a landmark for civil rights, and yet the most notable thing about the documentary is how un-histrionic the story it tells is.

The Lovings became a cause celebre, but to all appearances they had no intention of becoming heroes or even activists. They weren’t naive; they had to leave Virginia to say their wedding vows in Washington, D.C. But as the two of them recall in archival footage (both are now dead), they did not expect any trouble to come of it. Central Point, Va., they say, was too small a town for people to get exercised over intermarriage; there was segregation, but black and white people generally lived and worked together—as a practical matter, the community simply needed everyone too much to practice utter separation.

It was when a local sheriff made a point of making an example of them that they became a counterexample, taking their case first to attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and finally to the high court. The legal maneuverings, related by their attorneys, are interesting enough, but what really fascinates is the ordinariness of the two people at its center: Mildred serious and soft-spoken, Richard gruff and all business, both of them homesick and wishing nothing more than to live a plain, boring married life. And their very plainness only underscores the ludicrousness and invasiveness of the law that sought to break them up.

The Loving Story airs, of course, not just on Valentine’s Day (the Lovings’ surname is too perfect) but in February, when HBO has always programmed a slew of Black History Month material. And though the film doesn’t make the case directly, it’s also hard to ignore that the documentary comes along as the country is in the middle of another legal and political debate, over gay marriage.

Some might argue that gay marriage is different. Certainly all analogies break down at some point; America’s history of African American discrimination has a different history and dynamics than others. But there are a couple of striking parallels. First, there’s the grandiose certainty of the marriage’s opponents, who cite Scripture and what they see as the intent of God and the proper way of nature. Second, there’s the argument that this particular kind of discrimination is, well, different. The defenders of the anti-mixing law are forced into contortions having to argue in court that there is a reason racial marriage laws are OK and religious-intermarriage laws are not.

Spoiler alert: there is no good reason.

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