A lot has changed for the better since Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, won their right to wed in a historic 1967 Supreme Court ruling. Yet as far as the U.S. has come, conversations on equality and race are just as relevant and important today as they were nearly 50 years ago.
When Jeff Nichols decided to turn the Lovings’ incredible journey into a film, titled Loving (out Nov. 4 and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the public debate over same-sex marriage was at the forefront of his mind. “Well, I started writing this in 2012 and it was hugely important,” Nichols tells PEOPLE. “That was going to be the main social connect to this story.”
When Richard and Mildred Loving married in Washington, D.C., in 1958, their union was still illegal in 16 states, including their native Virginia, where they were arrested five weeks later for violating the Racial Integrity Act. The couple were forced to flee back to D.C., where they lived in exile until the ACLU took their case in 1964. Years later, Mildred drew a connection between her experience and the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, saying in a 2007 public statement, “The older generation’s fears and prejudices have given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone, they have a right to marry.” Finally, in a ruling more divided than the unanimous decision that veered in the Lovings’ favor in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 26, 2015, that same-sex couples can marry nationwide.
The ruling was a landmark victory for marriage equality, but Nichols points out that no amount of litigation or lawmaking can put an end to the racial tensions in this country. “As racial tensions flared up and revealed themselves to still be one of the main things that as a society we have to tackle and deal with, the relevance became even more profound,” he explains.
“Because now we’re not just dealing with marriage equality, we’re dealing with the concept of equality. And equality isn’t something that as a society we can just achieve. It’s not something where we can just check a box and be done with it,” he adds.
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Instead, Nichols says we must view “equality as an evolving concept” that needs to be constantly reevaluated and questioned. Simply put, the director says equality is “about how we treat one another as humans.”
“We’re really good at having these political arguments about these social topics and somehow not focusing on the humanity at the center of them,” he explains. “I think that’s what makes their story relevant, because it shows us how to have these conversations by keeping the focus on the real people at the center.”
The Lovings themselves underscored that, stressing at the time that at the heart of such a momentous case lay a basic struggle of two people to have their love recognized — and respected.
“[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones,” Richard said in a 1966 interview with LIFE magazine. “We are doing it for us — because we want to live here.”
Loving hits theaters Nov. 4.