At first glance it was certainly pretty.
A nearly mile-long tunnel of weathered 270-year-old oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss. A reception venue filled with charming details, from the bistro light-strung patio overlooking the tidal marsh to the angled wooden beams just begging for chandeliers to the antique table covered in various homespun desserts.
Add to that a custom couture silk tulle Marchesa ballgown with illusion crystal beading, a look befitting a bride who'd earned praise for the bohemian ensembles and statement footwear she'd popularized onscreen and the classic Chanel and dreamy Dior designs she'd famously selected for various red carpets and press appearances without the help of a stylist.
When the couple first happened onto images of South Carolina's Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, mere months into their friends-to-lovers transition, they saw the dream of exchanging vows under the curved oaks; the potential in the rustic, wooden Cotton Dock; the seemingly endless picturing-taking possibilities; the romance. The place had been a backdrop for the tearjerker to end all tearjerkers, The Notebook for Chrissake!
But eight years removed from the whirlwind of wedding planning, they were able to see what others had noted: The crumbling brick slave quarters. The fields of cotton. The decades of violence and horrific abuses against Africans stolen from their homes that had taken place on the sprawling bucolic grounds as families built their fortune on the backs of unpaid, mistreated slaves.
They fully understood the reason sites like The Knot and Pinterest had responded to civil rights group Color of Change's call to stop featuring plantation wedding venues that serve as "physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen."
Their hindsight 20/20, "It's something we'll always be deeply and unreservedly sorry for," Reynolds addressed in Fast Company's September 2020 issue. "It's impossible to reconcile. What we saw at the time was a wedding venue on Pinterest. What we saw after was a place built upon devastating tragedy."
Perhaps not the image they had in mind for the highlight of their rom-com worthy love story.
Good buddies after meeting on the set of The Green Lantern in 2010 (while Lively was still dating Gossip Girl partner Penn Badgley and he was in the waning months of his marriage to Scarlett Johansson), it took them more than a year and a half of friendship—and one very telling double-date—to realize they were destined for more.
"About a year after Green Lantern had come and gone and all that stuff, we were both single," Reynolds recalled during a 2016 appearance on Entertainment Weekly's SiriusXM show. "We went on a double date. She was on a date with another guy and I was on a date with another girl. That was the most awkward date for the respective parties because we were just fireworks coming across."
Their forever was sealed after one chemistry-laden 2011 night out in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood. "This song came on and I was just like, 'Want to dance?'" he detailed to GQ in 2016. "No one was in there, so it was just totally empty. And it was just one of those moments where halfway through the dance, it was like, 'Oh, I think I just crossed a line.'"
And before they marked their first anniversary, Reynolds presented her with an estimated 12-carat oval-cut Lorraine Schwartz engagement ring.
Charmed by the stately manor and pictures of sun streaming through the Spanish moss, they quietly put together an evening for 35 guests at Boone Hall Plantation, just eight miles from downtown Charleston, before anyone even realized they were betrothed.
A setting ripped from Allie and Noah's love story and a one-of-a-kind couture ballgown, it was the level of grandiose style-minded Lively envisioned when talking with Marie Claire just months earlier.
"Every girl has her dream," she allowed in her July 2012 chat with then-creative director Nina Garcia. "But what I planned before I got into the business has changed. It used to be that my mom or I would make my dress. Now I'm like, 'Hmm, I wonder what shoes Christian [Louboutin] is going to make me. And which couture house should I go to?'"
And, indeed, the famed stiletto designer and a pair of his red-soled beauties were on hand that September weekend in 2012 along with Lively's good friend Florence Welch, who'd been tapped to provide a bit of evening entertainment. But the rest of the details were, by the bride's own account, somewhat of a mess when she placed a call to Martha Stewart, her neighbor in Bedford, N.Y., the charming country town she and Reynolds had chosen to start their shared future.
"Our wedding was becoming a disaster, and we didn't know what to do, so we called Martha!" Lively recalled to Vogue in 2014. "She said, 'Don't worry. I'll handle it.' She sent her team down to save us."
Dispatched to South Carolina, the domestic doyenne's crew worked their magic. Desserts hand-picked from Charleston's top bakeries— s'mores bars from Bakehouse Charleston, blueberry cheesecake tartlets and mini strawberry shortcakes from Caviar & Bananas—were stacked onto trays, cake plates and in baskets, just as baking enthusiast Lively had hoped. A four-tiered vanilla-and-sour cream cake with peach-apricot preserves from Virginia's Maggie Austin Cake stood tall amongst the confections and glass domes filled with blush garden roses.
Hexagonal terrariums, bird cages and display cabinets were arranged to feature trinkets and blooms from Ooh! Events, highlighting the venue's vintage style. Pine needles were strewn down the aisle, offset by seating purchased from Aidan Gray where the guests would watch Lively walk toward her groom as a children's choir sang Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
Parasols selected from Paper Lantern Store were set out to shield attendees from the late summer sun. And, later in the evening, sparklers were dispersed, lit up to add to the excitement of Welch's performance.
The finishing touch: a bouquet of pink jasmine, andromeda and dusty miller, Martha Stewart Weddings' style director Kate Berry carefully dipping select petals in rose gold glitter chosen to reflect the embroidery on Lively's Marchesa gown. The actress, a source told Us Weekly at the time, was a "creative bride with a clear vision of what she wanted."
Not part of her fantasy: memories of bloodshed and abuse.
Caught up in the weeds of tablescapes and menus, neither she nor Reynolds stopped to consider what it meant to actually wed at a plantation, the pretty backdrop not quite covering up the atrocities committed. But as they did, the shame set in, crystalizing further when Reynolds' well-meaning tweet congratulating 2018's Black Panther, the first blockbuster featuring a Black superhero, was met with derision as Twitter users accused him of hypocrisy.
"Shame works in weird ways," Reynolds reflected to Fast Company. "A giant f--king mistake like that can either cause you to shut down or it can reframe things and move you into action. It doesn't mean you won't f--k up again. But repatterning and challenging lifelong social conditioning is a job that doesn't end."
For the couple, that meant marrying again at home "years ago," he told the mag. But, more importantly, not just acknowledging their mistake, but pledging to do better moving forward.
They've gifted $1 million a piece to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights and created the Group Effort Initiative through Reynolds' Maxium Effort production company, a plan to bring a minimum of 10 trainees "who are Black, Indigenous, people of color or people from marginalized and excluded communities," the website states. Participants will be paid out of his salary "and will spend their days on set learning from professionals and getting real-life experience that they can then parlay into another job and another job and hopefully a career in the film industry."
As Reynolds noted to Fast Company, "Representation and diversity need to be completely immersive. Like, it needs to be embedded at the root of storytelling, and that's in both marketing and Hollywood. When you add perspective and insight that isn't your own, you grow."
He and Lively hope their personal growth is just beginning.
Following the horrific killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor last spring, they pledged an additional $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, issuing a promise via Instagram to "stay educated and vote in every election. We want to know the positions of school board nominees, sheriffs, mayors, councilpersons. We want to know their positions on justice."
They intend to "use our privilege and platform to be an ally," they shared, and teach their children about the importance of dismantling systemic racism. "We want to educate ourselves about other people's experiences and talk to our kids about everything, all of it...especially our own complicity," they summed up. "We talk about our bias, blindness and our own mistakes. We look back and see so many mistakes which have led us to deeply examine who we are and who we want to become. They've led us to huge avenues of education."
This story was originally published on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 at 12 a.m. PT.