By Annette Hinkle
This year will be remembered as a landmark one for gay married couples across the country. In June, the Supreme Court dismissed a case on Proposition 8 basically validating a lower court ruling saying a California amendment to ban same sex marriage was unconstitutional. That same week, the court also struck down significant portions of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which means gay couples who were married in states or countries where such marriages are legal are now entitled to the same federal legal protections and tax treatment as married heterosexual couples.
But 50 years ago, it was another type of marriage equality that was breaking new ground — the right of blacks and whites to marry.
As unbelievable as it may be today, as recently as the mid-1960s, interracial marriage was not a universal right in this country. In fact, 16 states — primarily in the south — had anti-miscegenation laws on the books making it illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
One of those states was Virginia. That’s where Mildred and Richard Loving were living in 1958 on the night they were arrested while sleeping in their bed. Authorities, acting on an anonymous tip, raided the couple’s home on the basis of a law which prohibited interracial couples married out of state from returning to Virginia. The Lovings — he was white, she was African American — had been recently married in Washington D.C.
In January 1959, the Lovings pled guilty to the crime and were sentenced to a year in prison with the sentence suspended for 25 years on the condition the couple leave Virginia.
The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C. But that wasn’t the end of their story. In 1964, frustrated with their inability to visit relatives in Virginia, they enlisted the help of the ACLU. Their case worked its way up to the Supreme Court which, in 1967, struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the United States (though, tellingly, the law was still on the books as late as 2000 in Alabama).
Filmmaker Nancy Buirski knew that interracial marriage had been a felony in this country at one point. She also had a vague memory of the Lovings case which ended laws against interracial marriage.
But the story of the Lovings was one she really came to know after reading Mildred’s obituary in May 2008. That was the day, Buirski decided to make a documentary about the couple.
“When making a decision whether to embark on a story, it’s important not only how compelling and dramatic it is, but how relevant,” says Buirski. “In May 2008, Obama was campaigning and he was a very viable candidate — and then Prop 8 was being debated in California.”
“It was pretty clear I had two very important elements — the whole issue of interracial marriage, the possibility of an interracial president and same sex marriage being debated,” says Buirski. “It felt like a really timeless movie.”
Buirski’s documentary, “The Loving Story” hit the film festival circuit in 2011 and on Valentine’s Day 2012, premiered on HBO. This Sunday, “The Loving Story” will be screened at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor as part of the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival. A discussion with the film’s co-producer, Patricia Romeu, and consultant Professor Martha Hodes follows the 4 p.m. screening.
Though Buirski decided immediately after reading Mildred Loving’s obituary to make a documentary about the couple, she admits it wasn’t immediately clear how she would do that. After all, the Supreme Court case dated back to 1967 and both key players had died (Richard was killed in 1975 when his car was hit by a drunk driver — Mildred lost her eye in the accident).
Fortunately for Buirski, in addition to tapes from the court proceedings, there were several key players on the scene in 1967 who recognized the importance of the Lovings case and had been there to document it. Buirski began by optioning Phyl Newbeck’s book on the Lovings, “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been For Lovers” and was able to set up interviews with the lawyers on the case — Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop — who in turn introduced her to the Loving’s daughter, Peggy, whom she also interviewed.
The lawyers also told Buirski that producer Hope Ryden and cameraman Abbot Mills had been on hand to film them working with the Lovings at the time. Ryden allowed Buirski to license the black and white footage, which had been shot over the course of four days with the Lovings and their lawyers. Also instrumental in assembling the film, note Buirski, were photographs by Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet who photographed the Lovings and their children.
Buirski notes while the facts of the case are well documented, the interviews she conducted propel the story to another level.
“Both Peggy and the lawyers were very key to understanding the underbelly of the story,” says Buirski. “It’s s such a compelling story. Whether you grew up in the north or the south, you were somewhat aware of the key moments in the civil rights era of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s — and of course, it’s still going on – the issues still are very much living history.”
“The fact I knew so little about it, I felt, meant it was an overlooked turning point of that period and deserved attention,” adds Buirski. “I was also so compelled by them as a couple – it’s not only a civil rights story, it’s a human rights story and a love story.”
That, notes Buirski, is perhaps one of the most important themes of the film — the humanity and humility of the Lovings who didn’t set out to change history, but simply wanted to live peacefully with the person they loved.
“They were gentle, quiet people — very unprepared and not wanting the limelight,” says Buirski. “They were not activists. They did this because they wanted to return to Virginia and live with their families and be left alone. They didn’t want to change history.”
“I would call them reluctant heroes,” she adds. “The thing you come away with from the film is an understanding that anyone can change history if they’re committed – and its important enough to you.”
“The Loving Story” screens at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 22, 2013 at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Tickets are $15 at the door. For details visit www.ht2ff.com.