Buirski Embraces a Very ‘Loving Story’ From the ’50s

Documentary chronicles the fight of an inter-racial couple to have their marriage recognized as legal

New York City–Behind every landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, there’s an actual human story. Director-producer Nancy Buirski uncovers a particularly poignant one in her documentary, “The Loving Story,” which is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Her film is about Richard and Mildred Loving, who wed in 1958 in Washington, D.C. He was white and she was African-American and Native American. When the young couple returned to their home in rural Virginia, they were arrested in the middle of the night and charged with having violated the state’s ban against inter-racial marriage. If they wanted to remain a couple — and they did — the Lovings were prohibited from living together in their native Virginia.

When the nation’s highest court ruled in their favor in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, it declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, and similar laws that still existed in several other states, unconstitutional. In a unanimous opinion, the court said, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Buirski says the inspiration for making her documentary came when she read Mildred’s obituary in the New York Times in 2008 (Richard had died in 1975, when his car was hit by a drunk driver). “I had heard of the Lovings and Loving v. Virginia for many years, but I was immediately struck by the compelling nature of the story and it seemed like not a lot was known about the people who were at the center of this major civil rights case,” she says.

She began digging around, including interviewing the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, who had represented the Lovings in the case. One of the lawyers remembered, and tipped Buirski off, to Hope Hayden, a producer who back in 1965 had worked with cameraman Abbot Mills to shoot the Lovings for a possible documentary. With help from D.A. Pennebaker, Buirski was able to track down Hayden. “I called her and she said she was not sure where footage was. But then she called me right back and said that she still had it at the bottom of her closet, where it had been there for 43 years. Once I saw it, I knew I had the core of my film,” says Buirski.

That black-and-white footage, which includes extensive interviews with the Lovings and their lawyers, allowed Buirski to tell the couple’s story through their own voices. Richard, a bricklayer and stock car enthusiast, comes off as taciturn but determined; homemaker Mildred is soft-spoken but eloquent. Both just wanted to get on with their lives and be able to return to reside in their rural Virginia home near family and friends.

In addition to this amazing cache of film footage, Buirski also uncovered, through the Lovings’ surviving daughter (their two sons are dead) the contact sheets for a trove of photographs of the couple and their children from 1965. The pictures were shot for Life magazine by photographer Grey Villet.

Buirski says she was well aware while making the documentary of the parallels between the Lovings’ fight to have their marriage recognized and the current battle for same sex marriages. “It’s implicit,” she says. “This is definitely a universal story, dealing not just with civil rights but human rights and the ability to choose who you can love and who you can marry.”

“The Loving Story” will air next February on HBO as part of the premium channel’s programming for Black History Month. Buirski is hopeful her film will have a theatrical run after that, though nothing is set. She is also serving as producer on a fictional version of the Lovings’ story, which she said would, if it gets made, likely be an independent feature.

A previous TV movie, “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” with Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon starring as the Lovings, aired on Showtime in 1996. "Not much of it was very true," Mildred said of the film in a rare interview with the Associated Press in 2007 (https://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-10-loving_N.htm). "The only part of it right was I had three children."