Imagine living in the Virginia farmlands in 1950, falling in love with someone, and being told you can’t marry them. That has been reality for many people—even up until a few years ago, even—being told whom they can and cannot marry.
Before same-sex marriage, race rights were the beating heart of the civil rights movement. In the 1950s interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states. The final remainder of the Jim Crow-era laws continued on the books in South Carolina until 1998 and in Alabama until 2000. In Virginia, however, the law changed in 1967. It all started with Richard and Mildred Loving.
The Lovings didn’t set out to change history. Richard was a reserved man; Mildred, a gentle woman of black and Native American descent. They went to Washington, D.C., got married and, upon their return to their farm house in Virginia, broke a law that forbade their union.
In 1957, within a month of their union, they were arrested with a felony charge and forced out of “the state for lovers” (though, “Virginia is for lovers” didn’t officially mark the state until 1969). They moved back to Washington, though snuck into Virginia many times over the course of their first five years in exile. With their three children in mind—and a longing for their rural life—Mildred began a fight against Judge Leon Bazile’s ruling, which was based on his religious beliefs and stood strong against races “mixing.”
Mildred Loving first wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general at the time, who suggested she contact the American Civil Liberties Union. Attorney Bernard S. Cohen, with the help of another lawyer, Philip Hirschkop, took on the Loving’s case, and for three years fought until it reached the Supreme Court. The case set a precedent for equal rights for citizens to love whom they want, regardless of skin color. Though Mr. and Mrs. Loving were present at the Virginia trials, they stayed home during the Supreme Court case in an aversion to the attention it brought their way. They simply wanted to be married in peace—and they eventually got it. The law was overturned in a unanimous vote in 1967.
Though a popular case with the ACLU, until recently the Loving’s story wasn’t too well known in pop culture. Few books or films have been made about it. Richard Friedenberg wrote and directed “Mr. & Mrs. Loving” in 1996. NPR covered the case in 2007 on “All Things Considered.” In 2015 “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage” was published. In 2016 a dramatic feature film, “Loving,” directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, will be released. But in 2008 director Nancy Buirski read Mildred’s obituary and became fascinated that this great love story hadn’t been made into a documentary.
“I think it’s important to recognize anybody can change history,” Buirski told encore last week. “You don’t have to be an activist; you don’t have to have an agenda. You just have to feel deeply about something.”
The director’s passion for the Loving’s case helped flesh out her 2011 doc, “The Loving Story.” She debuted it at Tribeca, Sundance and other festivals to rave reviews. Critics from the The New York Times, International Documentary Association and The Hollywood Reporter praised Buirski’s work for capturing the Loving’s authentic pursuit of justice and love.
The filmmaker was intimately involved in all frames of the 77-minute doc. She auctioned a book, put together a small team, and immediately started raising development money for the film. Buirski first met with attorneys who introduced her to Peggy Loving, the Loving’s daughter. With their help, Buirski had access to Hope Ryden’s black-and-white footage. Ryden documented the trial and interviewed the attorneys and the Lovings. The content, even when observed 40-something years later, still felt relevant to Buirski.
“We’re still a nation, and society, steeped in racism, and I don’t think you could ever consider this story over,” Buirski said. “Even if it’s possible to legally marry someone from another race or legally marry someone from the same sex [in 2016], it will probably take quite a while before everyone is accepting of these changes.”
As the trial unfolds, and the Lovings exit a Virginia courtroom, reporters rush them with questions. It’s easy to see a couple uncomfortable with attention. Instead they let attorneys speak to the press. The Lovings sheepishly thank everyone who fought for them, clearly happy to have someone on their side. Thus a humanity resonates in “The Loving Story.” It shows first-hand how freedom also comes at the expense of everyday people—of families—who strive toward justice simply by loving whom they like and living where they wish.
At an educational screening held in Durham, at NC’s Full Frame Film Festival—which Buirski oversees—a question-and-answer session led a student to ask: “Why do we put boundaries on love?” Buirski’s response was simple: “We do it out of fear.” Her documentary adds to the larger conversation still taking place in regards to race. It showcases a change in the way the world is viewed by many and shatters notions that one’s outlook is safe when it isn’t challenged. “What [Richard and Mildred] went through gives them empathy,” Buirski said. “People who have gone through a similar thing [will connect].”
In considering whether Buirski would change anything about the documentary, she’s steadfast on its outcome and impact. “I don’t think I would. I think that it took a long time to get to the place it is now, and there was a gestation period and evolution from first cuts to final cuts, but, no, I would leave it just the way it is. I’m happy with it.”
Currently, the Cape Fear Museum, in partnership with the New Hanover County Public Library and New Beginnings Church, is hosting a film series, “Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle,” through Feb. 23. The screenings include three documentaries: “Slavery By Another Name,” which screened on Jan. 17, and “Freedom Riders” and “The Loving Story,” the latter two which will show at New Beginnings Church on Feb. 16 and 23 respectively. “The Loving Story” doesn’t only showcase an important aspect of the civil rights movement but it laid an early foundation for marriage rights for everyone. What an appropriate way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and Black History Month all in one.