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The Love That Changed America: The Touching Photos That Inspired the Movie Loving

Updated

Richard and Mildred Loving never sought the spotlight, even as their bid to overturn state laws against interracial marriage grabbed international headlines during the civil rights movement. They rarely gave interviews, and even when their case reached the Supreme Court, the couple declined a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the proceedings.

The Lovings won their right to live as husband and wife in their home state of Virginia after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 1967. The court’s decision wiped away the country’s last remaining segregation laws, which until that point had outlawed interracial marriage in 16 states.

The most enduring images of the reluctant activists comes from a series of candid photographs taken in the spring of 1965 by LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet. The pictures underscored the love story at the heart of a divisive and racially charged legal battle, and captured a rare glimpse of what the Lovings were really fighting for.

Now, the makers of the new film Loving, which has garnered early Oscar buzz since its Cannes debut, have honored some of Villet’s most famous stills in a new slideshow (above). Director Jeff Nichols, who cast Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the Lovings, and Michael Shannon as the photographer, explained how important the images were to his research.

Loving
Loving

“That’s why I ended the film with one [of his photos] and built an entire scene about the creation of one – the images really seemed to capture the essence of these people,” Nichols told PEOPLE.

The final shot of the film reveals the most famous photograph of the set: an image of the couple watching TV. Richard, a burly bricklayer, lay with his head in his wife’s lap as they laugh at a TV show. “If you look at that Villet photograph at the end of the film it says everything. Right away you know the period – maybe ’50s or ’60s – it’s rural. He’s white and she’s black, which would have been weird at the time,” Nichols explains.

“And then he’s this tough guy with bricklayer hands and these work boots and flannel shirt, but he’s in this very delicate position where he’s laying in her lap. And then she’s watching TV and they’re both laughing, so they’re happy? How could anyone in this position be happy? What the hell’s going on? And how amazing that it is going on!” he adds.

“This was the feeling I got from those images. And there are so many others of him with his arm around her. They seem like my grandparents, just two hardworking people who love one another. And they seem completely removed from the harsh realities that we know surround them,” said the director.

Filmmaker Nancy Buirski uncovered many of Villet’s photographs during the making of her 2012 HBO documentary The Loving Story. That same year, Villet’s wife Barbara spoke with the The New York Times about her husband’s work and approach.

Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

“Emotional content always mattered most to Grey in his work and pursuit of images ‘as real as real could get,’ ” she explained. “It’s what gives his take on the Loving family its intimacy and strength. Grey was a purist in his approach to every essay he shot. Quiet as a cat, he seemed almost to disappear as he worked. Unlike many other celebrated photographers, he avoided posing his subjects, refused to manipulate the action and simply waited patiently for telling moments to emerge, in the belief that reality would supply more truth than any imposition of his own ego.”

Villet chose to use only natural lighting, but used his surroundings to create subtle and ingenious compositions. “As an example, a picture of Richard and Mildred Loving standing on their porch with a pillar between them quietly suggests the legal barriers then threatening their marriage,” his wife said of first image in the above slideshow.

Perhaps the photographer’s greatest accomplishment was shedding light on the feelings Richard did not care to — or did not know how to — convey otherwise. Barbara said,”All are expressive of inner emotions, but that of Richard, mouth compressed in determined anger but eyes revealing a sadness, is enriched by the pin-sharp detail of the face. His skin is weather-worn and lined; there is a scar over one eye; it is the face of a laborer who, despite the macho exterior, is a sensitive man.”

The Lovings’ case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1967, with the judges unanimously ruling in the couple’s favor. Their decision wiped away the country’s last remaining segregation laws.

Loving hits theaters Nov. 4.