Nancy Buirski likes stories about women who are unintentional heroines. Her first documentary, "The Loving Story," tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who defended their interracial marriage all the way to the Supreme Court, knocking down anti-miscegenation laws nationwide. Now Buirski is working on a film about Recy Taylor, an African American woman gang-raped by white men in 1944, who spoke up about it without fear.
"These are women who are heroes of their own story. They did not set out to be activists. It just happens to them," Buirski said. "What happened to Mildred Loving is that if she doesn't speak up and do something she'll live a life she'll regret her whole life."
Buirski directed the doc "The Loving Story," which will be shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art on April 16. "Loving," the Oscar-nominated narrative feature inspired by that film, will be shown at the Atheneum on April 12. Buirski will be present at the April 12 screening and will do a Q&A.
In a phone interview, Buirski said she was just retiring from her job running the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., in 2008, when she read Mildred Loving's obituary. She was immediately seized with the desire to tell her story.
"I was surprised I didn't know much about it. I didn't know their story," she said.
"That was the year Obama began to run for the White House. He became the first mixed-race president. And Prop 8 was being debated in California, about same-sex marraige," she said. "I had this story about marriage equality, about a mixed-race couple. It seemed like a film that should be made."
Buirski first interviewed Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, the attorneys who took the case to the Supreme Court, and they introduced her to the Lovings' daughter. "She was very much like her mother, a very humble person. She was not excited about a film being made, about her participating in something like that," Buirski said. "Phil and Bernie convinced her that people needed to be reminded of her parents' legacy. She went along with that."
The doc combines interviews and still and video footage of the Lovings as they proceeded through their legal journey.
Buirski said while she was pitching the doc, she was pitching the feature film, too. During that time, she met actor Colin Firth, who was interested in co-producing the feature film. "He formed a company, Rain Dog Films, to produce it with me and we hired Jeff Nichols to direct it."
The feature film went on to receive unanimous critical acclaim, including a best-actress Oscar nomination for Ruth Negga, who portrayed Mildred Loving.
Now, Buirski is concentrating on her Recy Taylor film, and she is just as passionate about the subject.
"She was not alone in being raped during that period. Rapes were as frequent as lynchings, but unlike lynchings they were not public. Lynchings were done to warn people. Women were raped almost ritualistically, systemically, since the days of slavery, when their bodies were virtually owned by their masters. White men felt entitled to rape black women," Buirski said. "It was a legacy of slavery that continued through the '40s. Finally someone had the courage to speak up about what happened. She felt no shame, no responsibility. She knew she didn't deserve this and black women before her didn't deserve it."
Buirski pointed out another extraordinary Civil Rights connection to Taylor's story.
"The NAACP rape investigator happened to be Rosa Parks," she said. "Most people don't know that she was an activist who was focused on bodily and physical abuse."
LOVING, a narrative feature film, will be shown on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford. Producer Nancy Buirski will be present. The documentary "The Loving Story" will be shown April 16 at 2 p.m. Admission to each film is $9, $8 seniors and students, $7 members, free to Insider Access members and above. thewadsworth.org.