While seated on a panel for Loving in a private dining room at the 21 Club, dynamic Oscar hopeful Ruth Negga namechecks Nancy Buirski. The petite cerebral brunette at Table 7 shyly raises her right hand but doesn’t stand.
Buirski is having a moment that has been a long time coming: her 2011 Peabody-and-Emmy Award winning documentary The Loving Story about the legal assault on the interracial marriage between Mildred and Richard Loving inspired the richly moving historical drama Loving. That feature — directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) — pairs Negga and Joel Edgerton. Buirski produced with actor Colin Firth and Big Beach Films, but got on the phone with the Observer to discuss her latest doc, the fascinating portrait By Sidney Lumet, about the consummate New York director opening in theaters today.
Buirski’s film presents a masterclass in directing infused with Lumet’s humanistic, social justice perspective. (His Polish Jewish emigrant father Baruch was active in Yiddish theatre. Lumet got his start on stage beside him.)
“On camera, Sidney says the important thing is to figure out what the film is about emotionally,” explains Buirski, who in addition to making movies, launched the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and was the Foreign Picture Editor at the New York Times. Of this need for laser focus, she reflects: “What is the movie about in one or a few words, whether a documentary or a narrative feature? All the elements that you must use to tell the narrative story have to serve that purpose. It’s not that different from documentary, just a different palette, a different kind of crew, working with actors and not real footage. Sidney’s emphasis on that inspired me, empowers me. ”
The Philadelphia native crafted over 50 films, received an honorary Oscar in 2005 and passed away in 2011. “It was a true blessing to know that we were going to remind people of the incredibly important films Sidney did one after the other,” says Buirski. “He made seven or eight groundbreaking films of the 20th century – 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, The Verdict and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — classics that remain timeless.
Neither Lumet, nor the film, shies away from the pitfalls and problems of his long career. Lumet struggled within the studio system dealing with the hydra-headed bureaucracy that had department heads who had never been on a film set overseeing his work. Lumet also recognized, according to Buirski, that “for every great film, you have two or three flops. It kind of releases you as a filmmaker to make flops. Ideally you’re not going to be devastated. ”
Buirski laughs at the “scary” possibility of failure because, particularly as a female filmmaker she says “I’m not sure I have that luxury. I think if I have a flop I’m unsure I’ll be able to raise money for another movie. You really have to feel that you have a hook and I guess that’s the case for a lot of men as well….We have to find something that is so marketable and so timely.”
Buirski’s next film exemplifies this necessity, dealing with gender, rape and race. The subject of her upcoming documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor, is a black Alabama woman in 1944. Seven white men gang raped Taylor in what “was almost a coming-of-age ritual.” Buirski adds, “What’s unusual about Taylor is that she speaks up and accuses her attackers, endangering her life and family. But she does it anyway.” Taylor’s outspokenness attracted the NAACP whose chief investigator at the time was Rosa Parks.
Civil Rights activist Parks, who now graces postage stamps and later became known for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, started a movement seeking justice for Taylor. The upcoming film (due out in 2017) addresses many topics that resonate today: “gender, the ability to speak up, white supremacy and how they were entitled to black women’s body, bodily integrity and pride. It’s another story like The Loving Story but hidden in plain sight. Few people talked about rape.” With Taylor, Buirski exposes historical events that echo timely issues like campus rape, white on black violence, white men attacking black boys with guns and black lives matter.
In By Sidney Lumet, what Buirski reveals Lumet to be “a deeply moral filmmaker. He cared about fairness, what was just. He was interested in films about doing what is right in life: someone who leads a righteous life, stands up to the mob. 12 Angry Men is the epitome of that vision.”
What made making this documentary such a pleasure for Buirski is that the themes that drove Lumet are significant in her work, too. “My films are about justice,” says Buirski. She pauses, stitching together the ideas that bind Lumet, Taylor and the Lovings, non-fiction and fiction storytelling. “They are moral films, about people being treated fairly. In many ways they are very much about what Lumet stood for. That people have the right to marry who they want to marry, they should not be abused. We have a right to live dignified lives. My films are also about empathy, we come to understand other people’s lives even as we gain a deeper understanding about ourselves.”