In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving did something that millions of Americans did that year: They got married.
But Mildred was black and Native American and Richard was white. And they lived in Virginia, where it was a felony for blacks and whites "to leave the state in order to marry." One night, they awoke to the county sheriff and his deputies hovering over their bedside. The couple was arrested and taken to jail.
Directed and co-produced by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story chronicles the couple's life leading up to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, in which the court unanimously overturned that state's miscegenation laws—and in turn, similar statutes on the books in 15 other states, including North Carolina.
Yet the film is not a legal thriller; it is the story of two people of different races who fell in love—the most basic of human emotions—and fought the system.
After reading Mildred Loving's 2008 obituary, Nancy Buirski became fascinated by the story. "It is a civil rights story and a human rights story," Buirski said. "I felt a need to rescue it. I wanted to bring the Lovings to life."
"How do we make this their story?" said Elisabeth Haviland James, who edited and produced the film. "That's what gives the film cohesion. It doesn't get too tied up in the legal minutiae."
Surprisingly, Buirski discovered the issue of interracial marriage had not been dealt with in documentary film.
"That seemed to be a huge oversight. Miscegenation and the desire keeping the bloodlines pure and keep different races apart to me feels like the fundamental reason for racism," Buirski said. "The principle of miscegenation is so fundamental to the way our country operates, and the way people mix or don't mix seemed like such an essential part of our value system."
Buirski, who founded the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and now consults for it, co-wrote the script for A Loving Story with former N.C. Central University law faculty member Susie Powell. Buirski and James artfully stitched together the Lovings' home movies, 1965 footage from an unfinished documentary, newly found photographs, news archives and original interviews with family members and the Lovings' attorneys—then just a few years out of law school—to make a poignant, historical film with present-day implications.
Those implications include, obviously, the similar struggles of gays and lesbians seeking the right to legally marry. Yet, it's important to remember that in most Southern states, it has been only 44 years since blacks and whites could not wed. In fact, vestiges of Old South's racism merged this week: Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling recently surveyed 400 Republican primary voters in Mississippi. Asked whether they thought interracial marriage should be illegal or legal, 46 percent of respondents said they thought it should be illegal. Forty percent said it should be legal; 14 percent weren't sure.
What would Richard Loving say to those Mississippians? Likely the same message he asked his lawyers to relay to the Supreme Court justices: "Tell the court I love my wife."
It's that simple.
The Indy recently spoke with Buirski about The Loving Story.
Indy: As you and your team were putting the film together, what were some of the important editorial and artistic decisions you made? For example, it was a smart decision not to use a narrator.
Nancy Buirski: I wanted to keep the story lean. It had a natural narrative to it. You don't want to get sidetracked too much by the legal aspects that detract from the love story. We were taking a bit of a risk not to have narration. But we had had other good interviews and voiceovers. We had enough of Mildred and Richard speaking about their experience that we realized we might be able to get away without a narrator.
Who better to tell the story though, but the people themselves?
With the footage and the voiceover you had this opportunity to tell a story in such an authentic way. It was an opportunity to immerse people in a time and place. Had we used a narrator or more talking heads, we would have pulled people out of that experience.
The other thing we did was let readers decide for themselves how they felt about this, instead of the filmmaker taking a point of view. You do sacrifice some conversation of the broader issues, but our hope is they will come through in the story.
The way people can discover someone's humanity by just spending time with them. In documentary we can have more of an impact on people if you allow them to experience their humanity and develop empathy for your subjects without telling them how to think.
How were the Lovings' three children affected by the case?
They were not aware of very much. In the 1950s and '60s, those serious issues didn't get discussed at the dinner table. Parents went behind closed doors and had those discussions there. Kids were kept from those things. Peggy [the Lovings' daughter] remembers the Life photographer coming to the house. But she doesn't have an idea of what it was about.
What does Peggy think now?
Now Peggy understands her parents' legacy. She understands the importance of making sure her family's story is told and told correctly. [She'll be at the Full Frame screening.]
What would the outcome had been if Richard had been black and Mildred had been white? That's a very historically charged image.
The area they grew up in was a relatively poor area where people of all races were so used to working and living together. They were very dependent upon one another, particularly in work. I don't think it would have been any different in that particular location. Elsewhere, it would have been anybody's guess. A white man and a black woman goes back to slavery and is far more tolerated than a black man and a white woman—which also goes back to slavery and was considered a huge insult to the white race.
This case clearly resonates now with the issue of same-sex marriage. Several years ago, Mildred was quoted as saying that she supported the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
I suspect people will ask why we didn't get into the same-sex marriage issue in the film. We thought it was more powerful to let people intuit it as they listen to the oral arguments [against interracial marriage] before the court. Instead of preaching, let them hear it come out through the trial. It's chilling when you realize these were the arguments made in the Proposition 8 case last year.
Our film is not only about marriage equality but racial identity in general. And if we can get people into the room who can experience the Lovings and have empathy with them, it's a gentle way to get people talk about the issues in the film.