When Peggy Loving was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to see a photographer around the house, though why she didn’t know.
“One [day], we were coming from the pond where we actually fished from, and I’m like okaaay,” Loving says now about photographer Grey Villet (whose photo is above). “We were kids and we lived our lives. I didn’t really care at that time.”
While Loving had the excuse of youth, the remarkable story of what was going on between her parents Mildred and Richard, an interracial couple who challenged the miscegenation law Virginia that made such unions illegal in 1957, is one of the great ones of the civil rights era yet little known. However, that hopefully will change with HBO’s Valentine’s Day debut of “The Loving Story,” which chronicles the court case that the Lovings took all the way to the Supreme Court in the nine years that followed.
Although audio recordings and written documentation done as part of the legal process laid the groundwork for first-time director Nancy Buirski’s exceptionally detailed documentary, it’s the intimate photographs taken by Villet for Life Magazine as well as 16mm footage shot by Drew & Associates filmmaker Hope Ryden that provides an insight into a romance that was strong enough to endure exile from their home in Virginia and the unwanted attention of a major court battle.
Recently, Buirski and Peggy Loving, the couple’s sole living child, took the time to call from New York to talk about what the new documentary means to each of them and how it was put together so long after the fact while remaining quite relevant to the present day.
Nancy, how did you learn of the story?
Nancy Buirski: I learned of the story after reading the obituary of Peggy’s mom Mildred Loving. I was struck by the fact that I didn’t know very much about her. I knew a little bit about the case, but I knew very little about the couple at the heart of the case and I pretty much decided that day I was going to make that movie.
As the founder of Full Frame, I was a little surprised it took you this long to get behind the camera as a director. Was there something specific about this that made you take the plunge and were there things that being in that position shaped you as a documentarian?
NB: Very much so. I actually started off as a photographer and I was a photo editor for many years, so before I founded Full Frame, I did at least get myself behind one kind of lens — that was a still camera. I was eager to use those kind of creative juices that I didn’t quite exercise while running the festival. Starting the festival is a very creative thing, but then it kind of takes over your life. I was missing using that part of my brain [and] absolutely, looking at the hundreds of thousands of documentaries that I looked at over the ten years I ran Full Frame had a huge influence on my taste and the standards I wanted to achieve when I set out to make my first film. Mildred’s story just spoke to me. I truly felt I was destined to tell her story. The fact that it hadn’t been told before in a documentary, nor had the crime they were accused of committing – miscegenation – been really treated in a documentary, it just felt like such a huge omission, so I was really eager to get going.
Peggy, was a film of this story something you were interested in?
Peggy Loving: [laughs] It never really crossed my mind, but Nancy got in contact with the lawyers and the lawyer got in contact with me. I thought about it and finally made the decision that yes, I really wanted the true story of my parents to come out.
Nancy, I imagine trying to tell this story cinematically was difficult. Were the Grey Villet photographs a guide for you?
NB: The Grey Villet pictures, we only discovered those about two-thirds of the way through the making of the film. I was working with my producer and my editor, a woman named Elizabeth James, and she and I traveled to visit Peggy again. We had visited her the year before to show her and her family a little bit of the movie and we asked her if she would look around for some family pictures. She said she might have some, but she looked at the movie first and I think she felt comfortable with what she was seeing and she came out holding 70 10 x 13 prints in her arms and gave them to us. We were just shocked. It’s a dream come true to come across such beautiful and artistic photographs, particularly ones that can show you a side of the family you haven’t quite seen before, which is what they did. They really helped us portray the love story.
How did that change what you were already doing with the film?
NB: We had discovered some footage earlier in the course of making the film that really set me on the path, which is the black-and-white footage you see in the film shot by Hope Ryden. It’s this vérité looking footage that when I saw it, I knew I could make the film.
We continued researching and kept uncovering more footage that had never been seen. That’s what interesting. Even though the case was covered in 1957, even the footage that was shot, very little of it was used. You usually saw the image of Mildred and Richard in the lawyer’s office during the press conference, but you didn’t see them in their home or during other interviews. There was one interview that was seen from time to time with Mildred talking about her arrest, but aside from that, there really had been very little that had been seen by the general public.
So I knew I had a fairly good body of footage to use. I also knew that I would flesh it out with what we commonly refer to as B-roll or footage that helps us understand the environment and the climate of the time. We certainly were going to want to tell that story, so I didn’t know how much I would find and I didn’t know how long the film would be as a result. We were often doing lengthy interviews with the lawyers and their narratives help us frame the story, so between the contemporary work we were shooting and the interviews we were making and the archival footage that we had, we probably would’ve had enough to make this film, but it certainly wouldn’t have been anything close to the intimacy and the richness and the beauty that we were able to portray in the film without those photographs.
Since Richard and Mildred appear to be a pretty reserved people, was there hesitation on the part of the people who knew them best to talk about them out of respect for their privacy?
NB: It’s a good question because Peggy is the first person I would put in that category. She wasn’t particularly interested in being interviewed. I think she inherited her mother’s humility, so it did take some convincing on our part to be interviewed. But she had gone through interviews before and had seen other depictions of her family, and I think she wanted to make sure this was told accurately. She trusted us to do that, so we’re very grateful to her for that.
Nancy, you’ve said in other interviews that you’re already working on a documentary about Las Vegas’ first integrated casino and another about Harlem Woodstock. What is it about race relations in America that interests you as a filmmaker?
NB: I think race is the American story, so if I’m going to tap into what I think is the zeitgeist in this country and has been for years and in a way should continue to be, I think race is that. But it’s as much about race as it is about tolerance. When I started Full Frame, we have a curated program every year and the first program that we did was called “Tolerance,” a theme in our country and in the world that needs to be tapped constantly. I think that human beings need to be reminded that we are all human and if we discover each other’s humanity, there would be a lot less intolerance in this world. I think the films that help us do that are really critical for a society that’s going to be a caring, loving society, so I think that’s another reason this story spoke so strongly to me.
Peggy, you’ve had a chance to see this film with audiences at various festivals. Has it been nice to see the impact this story has on people who weren’t familiar with it?
PL: Yes, and I think the most moving one was the one in Charlottesville with all the students there. They were really moved and they really accepted it. It really touched my heart that they didn’t know and they were willing to go back to their schools to tell the story to get more people interested in it. Of all of them, that was the one that really impacted me the most.
NB: At another student screening, a young girl stood up and asked us a question, which we have not forgotten. She said, “Why do we put boundaries on love?” Sometimes it takes a young person to see something so obvious, so we learn a lot from students too.
“The Loving Story” premieres on HBO on February 14th and will air throughout the month as well as being available on HBO Go.