February 14, 2012

A big picture of the Lovings

'The Loving Story' premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO


PLATTSBURGH — Archival-film footage chronicling Richard and Mildred Loving's nine-year battle to have their marriage legitimized in their native Virginia is at the heart of today's HBO premiere, "The Loving Story."

The documentary's director/producer Nancy Buirski and producer/editor Elisabeth Haviland James met at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2007.

At the time, James had just moved to North Carolina, where Buirski lives and founded Full Frame. A week later, they did lunch.

"She showed me the 16mm she had just unearthed," James said. "I saw that footage (of Richard and Mildred Loving). I knew I had to be involved."


The footage had been shot by cinematographer Abbott Mills many years earlier, she said, with a producer named Hope Ryden, who'd wanted to make a film about the couple.

"Hope Ryden had read a little clip from someplace that had turned her on to the Lovings' story," James said.

Ryden approached attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, who'd represented the couple in the U.S. Supreme Court case, to see if she could get access to the family.

"They went back and forth," James said. "They decided she was trustworthy."

Mills and Ryden went to Caroline County, Va., where they shot intimate footage of the interracial couple in classic cinéma-vérité style.

"You don't see that anymore," James said. "It's such a rare document of history. It's not done in television-movie style. It was intended to be made into a film. Forty-four years later, we unearthed that. Hope is one of the unsung heroes."

She was unable to complete the project herself.

"She was a woman," James said. "She couldn't get the backing."


Ryden ended up working at ABC News. Later, she persuaded her bosses to cover the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that had struck down statutes against interracial marriage in the nation.

"Hope went back down and filmed more," James said. "There are two sets of footage because of Hope. If she hadn't the foresight and tenacity ...."

The Lovings were private people.

"They didn't want the press," James said. "They weren't looking to become famous. They were not activists. They just wanted to live in peace in Virginia."

Buirski and James's "The Loving Story," premieres at 9 p.m. on Valentine's Day on HBO.

They are also thankful for the art and dedication of LIFE photographer Grey Villet, who photographed the Lovings in 1967.

"That's the second heartbeat of the film," James said. "He took 77 rolls of film. He spent a week photographing them. He came up with these unbelievable, intimate images that allowed us in the film to get the love story that moving footage couldn't."

A major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund the project.

You can learn more about the documentary at and see a trailer


Since their film's world premiere at the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Buirski and James have had an incredible run at other venues, including the Tribeca Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival and Virginia Film Festival.

"It's been so well received," James said. "It's beyond our wildest dreams."

A collision with a drunk driver ended Mr. Loving's life in 1975. Mrs. Loving died of pneumonia in 2008. But Cohen and Hirschkop are in the film, as is the Lovings' daughter, Peggy. Her brothers, Sidney and Donald, are deceased.

"Peggy has been a tremendous help to us," James said. "It takes a long time for film to make it to tape. We had such a wealth of material. We were really lucky."

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