What Law School Won't Teach You About Loving v. Virginia: My Review of "The Loving Story: A Long Walk Home"

The Loving Story: A Long Walk Home Tribeca Film Festival Screening Monday, April 25, 2011


Since moving to Boston, I rarely drive, but when I do, it's usually the four-to-five hour stretch between my parents' home in Prince George's County, Maryland and the home of many college friends and my in-laws, Durham County, North Carolina.  In between lies a vast, speed-trap laden forest known by its government name: the state of Virginia.  During my last drive a few months ago, a friend mentioned the Loving v. Virginia case as we passed highway signs announcing our entrance into Caroline County, Virginia and exits for the town of Bowling Green.  Immediately the car grew silent, as if we both knew, without saying a word, that the sacrifice of many made this desolate stretch of highway sacred ground.

I first encountered Loving v. Virginia during my first year of law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  As the 2004 spring semester drew to a close, our Constitutional Law class had less time to spend discussing cases, so Loving v. Virginia, one of the cases toward the end of the syllabus, got about five minutes for class discussion, ten max.  But, considering how our case book took a ten year span of litigation and whittled it down to a one page front-and-back case summary, I'm not sure dragging out a class discussion without supplemental material would have helped anyway.

For purposes of our final exam, we needed to regurgitate the Court's finding that when Mildred Loving (a black woman) and Richard Loving (a white man) married in the District of Columbia, returned to reside in Virginia, and were convicted under Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, Virginia's denial and restriction of the fundamental freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications, violated the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause and deprived the Lovings of liberty without due process.  Little did I know how significant this case would become in my life when just a couple weeks after turning in my Constitutional Law exam, I met the man who would become my husband.  A man (being white) that I (being black) would not be able to marry in College Park, Maryland and live with in Durham, North Carolina, but for the endurance of many people, two of those being Mildred and Richard Loving. 

Attending the Tribeca Film Festival Screening of The Loving Story: A Long Walk Home served as what the great philosopher Oprah calls a "Full Circle Moment."  First, my chosen mode of transportation from Boston to New York: the infamous Fung Wah Bus--an experience unto itself--which I became intimately acquainted with years ago as "The Official Bus Of Broke Law Students."  During the summer of our wedding, I tried to maintain some sanity living with my parents, studying for the Maryland Bar Exam, and planning a wedding (which I highly discourage) while my husband--then fiancée--interned in the legal department of a New York City financial services firm, saving up for our new life together.  Just about every weekend, one of us would brave the erratic driving, random stops off of highway exits, and smelly bus bathrooms in the name of love and frugality. Yeah, I probably could have taken the Acela this time around, but I'm either a glutton for punishment or a sucker for nostalgia (hopefully the latter).

After a pleasant lunch to recover from my near death experience on the bus, and a stroll around the East Village, I made my way to the AMC Lowes Village and settled into my seat before realizing I forgot a most crucial element of the movie review process: Strawberry Twizzlers.  I couldn't risk losing my seat or leaving my belongings unattended so I figured my energies were better spent trying to take notes in the dark rather than eating during the movie.  After a few opening words from Director Nancy Buirski, the lights dimmed, the film began, and I found the first words of the movie--an excerpt from the trial decision rendered by Judge Leon Bazile--difficult to hear.  Judging from the hissing and cackling from the crowd, I assumed I wasn't the only one:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Ouch.  Deep.

An hour and fifteen minutes later the movie ended, the credits rolled, the crowd applauded, and Nancy began taking questions from the audience.  Meanwhile, I reflected on two ideas I picked up on from the film that resonated with me: First, that if you are poor, under arrest, disadvantaged, or trying to making a documentary, having a lawyer makes a difference.  Second, that aside from raising children, it takes a village to accomplish just about anything.

After hearing about Congress' passage of the Equal Act Right, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy to find out whether this new law could help her and her family get back home to Virginia (talk about civic engagement!).  She stressed that they had three small children and could not afford a lawyer--the one moment the film brought tears to my eyes.  Kennedy wrote back saying that no, the law would not help the Lovings get back to Virginia, but did put them in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union and affiliated attorneys Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkopf.  They argued the Lovings' appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, Hirschkopf being just two years out of law school.  The Lovings' access to legal services as well as statements and information presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Japanese-American Citizen's League, a consortium of Catholic bishops, and others, made the difference in turning the Lovings' guilty plea, prison sentence, and 25 year exile from the state of Virginia into the chance to finally come home. 

The film's cinéma vérité style relies heavily on 1960s archival footage shot by Hope Ryden and the photography of Gray Villet.  When Nancy decided to make a documentary about the Lovings after reading Mildred Loving's 2008 obituary (Richard Loving died tragically in a car accident involving a drunk driver in 1975), she contacted the Lovings' lawyers who mentioned that they remembered someone shooting footage during the court proceedings.  One of Nancy's connections put her in touch with Hope Ryden (the videographer) who lived a mere ten blocks from Nancy's New York apartment and located the original footage in the bottom of her closet 44 years later!   Among the names of film advisors and scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. that appeared in the credits, one name in particular caught my eye and stood out: Jeremy Falcone.  The credit thanked him for his legal help and I thought to myself: "Hey!  I went to law school with a Jeremy Falcone!"  Knowing Nancy's connection to Durham, North Carolina through her production company and as Founder of the Full Frame Film Festival, I thought the chances that Jeremy Falcone was anyone but my classmate were slim.  Sure enough, when I shot him an email, he confirmed: "That was me!"  Very cool.  I always knew there was a reason I liked Jeremy...


Most of all, The Loving Story: A Long Walk Home served as a timely reminder of how our lives and work, even in the simplest ways, can serve purposes beyond the short term and change the course of nations and generations.  When I reflect on my own career as a lawyer and writer and look forward to the years to come, I know that I can do better.  I must do better.

5 comments:

  1. Well stated. Your review of Loving's significance was spot on and cannot be overstated enough.

    As a child of a biracial marriage, and as an attorney, I can fully appreciate this post.

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  2. Good post.

    5-10 minute class discussion at end of the semester. . .yeah, says it all.

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  3. @Temple
    Thanks. Even when you have a great professor, once the school year starts coming to a close, anything at the end of the syllabus gets short shrift.

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  4. @The Janitor
    Thank you! It's a great film and I can't wait for more people to see it when it comes out on HBO next February.

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