From ‘The Loving Story’ to ‘Loving’
Eight years ago, documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski was riveted by The New York Times obituary for Mildred Jeter Loving, a woman of African- and Native-American descent who had dared to marry a white man in 1958.
Mildred and her husband, Richard, a bricklayer, had known each other since they were children in the tiny community of Central Point, Va., where blacks and whites amicably mixed even during the Jim Crow era. But Virginia law forbade interracial marriage, and five weeks after their wedding in Washington, D.C., the Lovings were harshly awakened by police flashlights during the wee hours back home in Virginia. When Mildred explained that she was Richard’s wife, the sheriff replied, “Not here, you’re not.”
A judge subsequently ruled that the Lovings must divorce or leave the state for 25 years to avoid jail. It took nine years before American Civil Liberties Union attorneys were able to argue the case before the United States Supreme Court, which overturned the ban on interracial marriage then in effect in 24 states.
Buirski was so compelled by Mildred’s obituary (Richard had died in a car crash years earlier) that she immediately aspired to turn their story into a documentary as well as a feature film. Her hopes were realized when her documentary, “The Loving Story,” aired on HBO in 2012 and won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. And she is now a producer of director Jeff Nichols’ dramatic feature “Loving.”
Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred in the film, is nominated for a 2017 Academy Award in the lead actress category, where she will compete with the likes of Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”).
Buirski, who grew up with Jewish parents passionate about social justice, said she was drawn to the Lovings’ case “because it was such an important turning point in civil and human rights in this country. Yet, I had never heard about them.”
Buirski’s ignorance especially surprised her because at the time she was the founder and
director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., whose films often explored racial issues.
She also was aware that the Lovings’ struggle had special relevance at the time, when support was gathering for California’s anti-gay marriage ballot measure, Proposition 8.
“But the clincher, for me, was that on top of all the critical issues that were embedded in the Lovings’ story was this beautiful love story,” Buirski said in a telephone interview from New York. “They were very quiet people who were definitely not out to change history. They were not activists. They did not want public attention, and they didn’t necessarily want [their case] to go to the Supreme Court. All they wanted was to have the judge rule again and allow them to go back to their home in Central Point, Va., together and live with their family.”
Buirski began her research by contacting the Lovings’ attorneys, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, who are Jewish. The lawyers, in turn, helped persuade the couple’s only surviving child, Peggy, to appear in an interview on camera.
Buirski also reached out to filmmaker Hope Ryden, who had shot never-seen footage of the couple with their three children in a secret Virginia residence where they lived illegally in the mid-1960s.
Ryden’s luminous, black-and-white, 16 mm film “was beautiful and sensitive,” and her cinema verite style “made you feel like you were in the room with these people,” Buirski said.
“What comes through is the profound love between the couple and the beauty of their family,” she added. “You have to remember that one of the approaches that the state of Virginia used in its Supreme Court case was to argue that interracial marriage would harm the children. But all you see in this footage is how well the children appear.”
Around the same time that Buirski began working on her documentary, she also started brainstorming on how to pitch the project as a feature film. Upon learning that Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) had admired the film and was passionately interested in American politics and racial history, she reached out to him. By 2009, Buirski and Firth were collaborating on a screenplay for a feature film based on “The Loving Story.”
About two years later, Firth informed Buirski that he had founded a production company, Raindog Films, with his business partner, Ged Doherty. The producers said they wanted to make the Loving drama their first project.
Nichols’ take on the Lovings — played in the film by Negga and Joel Edgerton — was similar to Buirski’s: “He knew they were a humble, modest couple, so this wasn’t going to be a flag- or banner-waving kind of movie,” said Buirski, who read every draft of Nichols’ ensuing scripts.
“There are no bombastic speeches. Yes, the Supreme Court unanimously decided to support the Lovings, and that is probably the most important moment [in the movie]. But even that is told from the Lovings’ point of view. They didn’t even go to the Supreme Court; they stayed home and took care of their kids, which is what Jeff captures in the film.”
“The Loving Story” is available on HBO On Demand and other venues. “Loving” is now in theaters. l
“The Loving Story” is available on HBO on demand and other venues. “Loving” is now in theaters.