Just in time for Valentine’s Day, filmmaker Nancy Buirski shares a scene from her moving documentary, “The Loving Story,” a story of enduring love that led to a landmark Civil Right’s case. The film debuts on HBO today, during Black History Month.
In many ways, Richard and Mildred Loving were a typical couple. They grew up in the same Virginia town, fell in love and decided to cement their relationship by marrying. Because she was part-black and part-Native American, and he was white, however, their 1958 marriage was declared illegal by their home state. But the Lovings fought back and ultimately changed history through a watershed Supreme Court case that overturned bans on interracial marriage in 16 states. [Synopsis courtesy of HBO Films]
A young girl, her blond hair tied up in a ponytail, stands on one leg, pelican like. The scene is softly backlit; it opens a chapter called “The Crime.” In voice-over she describes her mother, a tall, thin woman, who her father calls “bean.” We zoom in on just such a woman, pulling shoes out of a closet. They and two small boys move into a living room, where this brown-skinned woman lifts the small girl onto her lap and tenderly pulls on the child’s socks. Until she does this we are not really sure who they are. But this simple gesture, done with palpable care suggests this can only be mother and child. Regardless of skin tone.
BEHIND THE SCENE
The scene, shot in classic verité style, is meant to immerse us in the life of the family at the heart of “The Loving Story.” Cinema verité footage is typically viewed soon after it is shot, so not only does this allow us to observe closely, but it puts us in what feels like a contemporary place and time. We are instantly connected to real people and invested in them as a family.
In 2009, I had been similarly drawn into the documentary “Garapa” by José Padihla. In his film we watch an achingly poor Brazilian family, slowly, methodically going about the business of life. One resists this at first, not wanting to be privy to their misery, but before long we are in this with them, caring. I had just discovered black and white footage of the Lovings produced by Hope Ryden and shot by Abbot Mills; my inclination was to begin a film about Richard and Mildred Loving with the scene just described. I felt their everyday life would resonate and would draw viewers to them far better than a narrator omnisciently setting the stage. Padihla’s exquisitely sad vantage on his subject’s starvations confirmed for me the compelling honesty of this approach.
Ultimately, my editor Elisabeth Haviland James and I added a prologue to further increase the stakes. But the body of our film is an interlacing of Ryden’s footage, more archival film, a treasure trove of artistic documentary images all shot by photographer Grey Villet and voice-over of our subjects, their friends and witnesses threaded throughout. We committed ourselves to remain in the experience, to let our luminous verité footage breathe in whole scenes, creating not only a narrative sensibility but also a time capsule of life in the 60’s. This is complimented by revealing, present day interviews with the two attorneys who argued Loving v. Virginia in the U.S. Supreme Court and who we also see as young men in archival footage. We have let our subjects – the Lovings, the lawyers, their daughter and their friends – tell their own story with only the occasional insertion of an expert. In doing so, we, of course, risked the rancor of people who needed more information on the background and precedents of the legal case and on the history of miscegenation in the U.S. We have tried to supply what is not in the film in alternative venues – related websites, post screening discussions and eventual DVD extras. But filmmaking, for me, is story telling, regardless of genre. When we freeze frame on Mildred Loving telling of her arrest in 1958, she could have as easily been saying “it was a dark and stormy night.”
A pivotal civil rights case and a profound love story frame a powerful moral message, one that resonates strongly today as we see others fight for the right to marry whom they love. I believe our film not only informs viewers about the Lovings and their struggle, but, because of our approach, it allows us to suffer their indignities with them. The Loving Story is not just about civil rights, but the human right to marry regardless of race, religion and gender. We have chosen to tell a story about a noble couple fighting a complex legal system in a direct and simple manner. Apart from having made this creative choice, we, as filmmakers, have removed ourselves from their story. This unassuming couple surprises us with the force of their actions and the impact of their voice.