Nancy Buirski, award-winning documentary filmmaker, dies at 78
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Nancy Buirski, award-winning documentary filmmaker, dies at 78
She won Emmy and Peabody Awards for “The Loving Story,” about a Virginia couple’s successful challenge to a ban on interracial marriage.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Nancy Buirski, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose eye was honed as a still photographer and picture editor, died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 78.

The cause had not yet been determined, her sister and only immediate survivor, Judith Cohen, said.

After founding the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 1998 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and directing it for a decade, Buirski (pronounced BURR-skee) made her own first documentary, “The Loving Story,” in 2011.

The film explored the case of Mildred and Richard Loving, who faced imprisonment because their interracial marriage in 1958 was illegal in Virginia. (She was part-Black and part-Native American, and he was white.)

Their challenge to the law resulted in a landmark civil rights ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 that voided state anti-miscegenation laws.

The documentary, directed by Buirski, won an Emmy for outstanding historical programming, long form, and a Peabody Award. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and made its television debut on HBO during Black History Month in 2012.

“Drawing from a wealth of stunning archival footage,” Dave Itzkoff wrote in The New York Times. “‘The Loving Story’ recreates a seminal moment in history in uncommon style, anchoring a timely message of marriage equality in a personal, human love story.”

Buirski went on to seek more stories to tell, drawing on a wide range of voices and experiences.

“Nancy was a completely original thinker and a visionary,” her frequent collaborator and producer, Susan Margolin, said in an email. “With every film she pushed the limits of the art form with her kaleidoscopic, unique approach to storytelling.”

Buirski directed, co-produced and wrote “Afternoon of a Faun” (2013), about ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, who contracted polio while on tour in 1956; and “By Sidney Lumet” (2015), about the acclaimed filmmaker, both of which were broadcast by PBS on “American Masters.”

She also directed, co-produced and wrote “The Rape of Recy Taylor” (2017), about the 1944 kidnapping of a Black woman by seven white men. Despite their confessions, they were never charged, although in 2011 the Alabama Legislature apologized for the state’s failure to prosecute her attackers.

Critic Roger Ebert called the film “a stiffing, infuriating marvel,” and it was awarded a human rights prize at the 74th Venice International Film Festival.

Buirski went on to direct, co-produce and write “A Crime on the Bayou” (2021) about a 1966 altercation sparked by school integration, and “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” (2023), which explores John Schlesinger’s 1969 film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

She was also a special adviser to “Summer of Soul” (2021), Questlove’s Academy Award-winning concert-film documentary, based on rediscovered footage, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

Years earlier, as a picture editor on international desk at The New York Times, Buirski was credited with choosing the image that won the newspaper its first Pulitzer Prize for photography, in 1994.

After seeking a photograph to accompany an article on war and famine in southern Sudan, she choose one by Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, of an emaciated toddler collapsing on the way to a United Nations feeding center as a covetous vulture lurked in the background.

Buirski commended the photo to Nancy Lee, the Times’ picture editor at the time. She then proposed it, strongly, for the front page, because, she recalled telling another editor, “This is going to win the paper’s first-ever Pulitzer Prize for photography.”

The photograph ended up appearing on an inside page in the issue of March 26, 1993, but the reaction from readers, concerned about the child’s fate, was so strong that the Times published an unusual editors’ note afterward explaining that the child had continued to the feeding center after Carter chased away the vulture.

The picture won the Pulitzer in the feature photography category. (Carter died by suicide a few months later at 33.)

Buirski was born Nancy Florence Cohen on June 24, 1945, in Manhattan to Daniel and Helen (Hochstein) Cohen. Her father was a paper manufacturer.

After graduating from New Rochelle High School in Westchester County, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, in 1967.

She worked as an editor for the Magnum photo agency before joining the Times.

As a photographer she produced a book of 150 images titled “Earth Angels: Migrant Children in America” (1994), which vividly captured the children of migrant farmworkers at work during the day and attending school at night and dramatized the hazards they faced from poor housing, harsh working conditions and exposure to pesticides.

Her marriages to Peter Buirski and Kenneth Friedlein ended in divorce.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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