Director Nancy Buirski on The Loving Story

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In the documentary The Loving Story, Richard and Mildred Loving say very little, preferring to lean in close, exchange meaningful glances, and drape an arm around the other. Hardly exhibitionist, the two seem unlikely candidates as powerful, public symbols of the fight for marriage and racial equality during the Civil Rights era. Mildred, of African American and Native American descent, met Richard, a white neighbor, in a small Virginia community where, as he says, “there’s a few white and there’s a few color” who “mixed together” without trouble. The couple married in Washington, DC in 1958 and returned to Virginia. But they were soon arrested for violating the state’s ban against interracial marriage (“Not here, you’re not,” the police told Mildred when she said she was Richard’s wife) and banished from the state. Mildred, frustrated, wrote the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a motion on the couple’s behalf. Years later, her act of quiet bravery would culminate in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1967 to abolish all race-based legal restrictions on marriage.

The Loving Story suggests with the very wording of its title that the Lovings’ journey to the Supreme Court — for all of its legal complexities, surrounding media hubbub, and larger-than-life historical import — was, at its core, a love story. Director Nancy Buirski presents newly discovered footage of the Loving family and their young ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, who take on the case with youthful energy. As we witness Mildred’s unassuming charm and the gentle lilt of her voice, or Richard’s unflappable reticence and moral firmness, we recognize that these are living, singular personalities — not just names to be uttered in a law-school classroom. The Loving Story urges viewers to see themselves in its central characters. After all, there are battles left to be won.

Filmmaker had the fortunate timing to speak with Buirski about the historical and contemporary resonances of her directorial debut the day after the Supreme Court announced that it would take on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment and the Defense of Marriage Act. The Loving Story is playing now at New York’s Maysles Cinema.

Filmmaker: How did you become interested in the story of Richard and Mildred Loving?

Buirski: I had founded and was directing the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, and I was actually thinking about stepping down from that role because I was really hungry to do something like this. I had prior to that been a documentary photographer and also had done some writing on the side. Those creative juices were just getting more and more stimulated, and as much as I loved running the festival, looking at so many films motivated me. It made me feel like I just had to get back to doing hands-on creative work.

I happened to be reading an obituary of Mildred Loving. That was in May 2008. I saw a photograph of them — she and her husband — in the obituary. I was immediately compelled by their story. I was really surprised, having run a documentary film festival and looking at so many hundreds of movies, very often many of them about race; my festival is based in the South, so we had a tendency to show films that dealt with racial issues. I had never seen a film on [the Lovings], nor had I seen a film on miscegenation, which is the crime they were accused of committing. So reading the obit and realizing what a powerful story they had, I just turned my sights to it immediately and thought this is not only an important civil rights story that feels like it’s been overlooked, but it’s also a very relevant story, because it was just at the time that the debate around Prop 8 was bubbling up.

The most important thing is that I realized it was an incredible love story. Their love is what inspired them to do so much. They were certainly not heroic figures. They became heroic figures, but they weren’t people out to change history. They didn’t see this as an opportunity to make a statement or send a message. All they wanted to do was to live together. So the powerful aspect of their love was what clinched it for me.

Filmmaker: How did you come across the original footage of the Lovings at home?

Buirski: I was doing background interview with the two lawyers, and they both remembered a woman named Hope Ryden coming to film them and the Lovings in 1965. Hope was one of the few people that really understood, I think, the importance of the story at that time — in 1965, it was two years before [the case] went before the Supreme Court. But she followed it, and she herself had hoped to make a documentary and never did for many reasons (it was difficult for women in those days to be able to put a documentary together on their own). She was working with Robert Drew and Associates, and I’m very friendly with D. A. Pennebaker — he’s an advisor to this film, he’s a close personal friend. So I called him, and he said, “Oh yeah, I had just seen Hope a couple weeks ago.” And she lived, as it turns out, 15 blocks away from me uptown. So I called her, and she said she hadn’t ever really done anything with the footage and was very sorry about that, of course, and she wasn’t even sure she knew where it was. But I asked her if she would please go look for it. She found it, and 44 years later, we have this incredible, luminous, black-and-white 16mm footage, so it was a real treasure.

Filmmaker: Once you knew you had access to the footage, did you entertain different options for how to weave the footage into your film? What sort of creative decisions did you make regarding the use of that material?

Buirski: Because this is my first film, I naively went into it thinking that I would definitely come across footage, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be. Had I not gotten that black-and-white footage, the film would have been a much more conventional cobbling together of a little bit of footage from here and a little bit of footage from there. I thought that I was going to use some kind of overall narration — not a voice-of-God narration, but someone would be representing Mildred’s point of view.

But when the footage surfaced, I realized how beautiful it was and how, like all cinéma vérité, it makes us feel like we’re right there with the subjects and it immerses us in that time and place. Though this vérité was shot 44 years earlier, it really did put us back in time. So I realized immediately what I could do, which is to create a much more narrative approach to this story and thread the footage through it as though we were living through it with the Lovings. There’s only 20 minutes of footage in the film. I struggled to keep as much of the footage in place as possible — meaning, not cut into the scenes, let them play out as real scenes. I think that also gives it a narrative feeling. I remember Pennebaker said to me, because he’s such a supporter of that kind of approach to documentary, “Yes, do let it breathe.”

Filmmaker: I wonder if there is an inclination to over-explain in a documentary film. When working on The Loving Story, did you ever struggle to, in a sense, hold yourself back and allow the material to speak for itself? Did you feel tempted to offer more explanation or narration?

Buirski: I never really had that inclination. I really wanted the audience to feel what the Lovings were feeling and to feel the time. It’s true that we may have left some information out because we didn’t have a means of telling it, but I felt this was a more powerful experience for people to be in it with them. I’m sure someone else could come and make a film with more detail and more information and tell you more about even the legal challenges that the lawyers had (though I believe they do a lovely job of telling that themselves). I just felt like there was an opportunity to allow the audience to experience something with [the Lovings]. Though you might sacrifice some hard information, I think what you get in exchange is the experience and the feelings.

Director Nancy Buirski

Filmmaker: And despite this, your film, in content and structure, is very much grounded in historical research. As you were making the film, did you ever find yourself struggling to give equal voice to your creative instincts and your commitment to the hard facts of the subject matter? How did you balance artistic play with academic interrogation?

Buirski: I just want to mention I worked very closely with my other producer, Elisabeth James, and she was also my editor. I want to give her credit here. It was definitely a collaborative effort. I’m very grateful to her for understanding my vision.

The intellectual part of it, the academic, historical part — we were grounded in that. We did our research. I started [The Loving Story] before Elisabeth came on board. I had really done my research, so it was in me, so I could make sure that the experience we were putting on the screen was grounded in that, even if it wasn’t articulated. It was articulated experientially. It never contradicted what we knew were the facts. We were happy to be awarded a nice grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and when you apply for one of their grants, your proposal has to be very scholarly. So not only were we already steeped in the research, but we had to extend it even further to create this argument for [NEH] for the historical importance of the subject. I’m not saying I’m the most expert on Loving v. Virginia, but I daresay we know a lot about it, and I think that is what gave us the confidence to tell the story the way we did.

Filmmaker: Promotional material for The Loving Story mentions the subject matter’s parallels to today’s debate over same-sex marriage. How did the contemporary connections affect the way you created the film?

Buirski: I was very aware of it. When I was reading Mildred’s obituary, I was struck by the fact that that had to be the most important ruling on marriage equality. It was the groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, and here, Prop 8 was being argued in California, and I suspected it would eventually end up in the Supreme Court — which is exactly what happened! It’s absolutely amazing. So there’s no question that was on my mind, and I think when you’re going to commit three to five years of your life to a film, you’re going to ask yourself a lot of questions, and one of those questions is how relevant is it today? So I was satisfied in my gut. I said, this is living history. We’re not just looking back at a fascinating story that is now over. It’s far from over.

Keep in mind that — as amazing as it may be — there are still people who have issues with interracial marriage, so that still makes it rather current. But there’s no question that the issue of same-sex marriage makes it that much more acute. I think one of the challenges that we had, and I’m very satisfied that at least we decided to handle it correctly, was not to make a large issue of it in the film itself. We trusted our audiences to intuit the relationship between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage. I think you really get the Supreme Court argument that [Philip] Hirschkop and [Bernard] Cohen make. And then this attorney for Virginia comes back and starts saying how [interracial marriage] is going to hurt the children — I think those kinds of arguments just raise a lot of red flags and remind you that we’re using the same arguments to rationalize against same-sex marriage. We find audiences grateful that we haven’t lectured them about that, but they feel it when they’re watching the film.

Filmmaker: The rare film footage is one obvious way in which your film would offer a very different experience from, say, that of a history book. How does documentary film differ in its exploration of historical subjects from other mediums?

Buirski: I think it’s because [documentary film is] storytelling. Though history books can often reflect important episodes in history through stories and anecdotes, I think documentaries really have to be dramatic stories and unfold in that sense, and that’s what makes them so powerful. That’s my opinion, by the way — there are lots of people who approach documentary very differently and are happy to let the information breathe more than the story. But I fall back in the narrative vein. It’s not that I approach it as if it’s a fiction film, but I certainly appreciate the story-arc value of fiction and therefore like to try to bring that into the documentary realm as well.