A gorgeously subdued film about the power of love and the faults of humanity, "Loving" is a compelling character driven film on American history. Director Jeff Nicholas hones in on the two very real people whose decade-long battle with the state of Virginia helped topple the grotesque anti-miscegenation laws of the era. Carried by stunning performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, "Loving" is much more than a footnote in our history books. It's an intimate portrait of race and American life.
I recently sat down with the soft-spoken and warm Ruth Negga in a restaurant in New York City. We chatted about Loving v. Virgina, how she came to embody Mildred Loving and the one thing she would say to Ms. Loving if she could. Aramide Tinubu: What drew you to "Loving" and the role of Mildred?
Ruth Negga: I auditioned for it actually. Francine Maisler is a fantastic casting director, and she'd put me forward for other parts. Jeff [Nicholas] was in town prepping for "Midnight Special," and Francine suggested that we meet. So, [Jeff] very kindly sent me some scenes from the script that he was writing along with Nancy Buirski's documentary "The Loving Story," and the extra archival pieces that she discovered and I just studied that. I knew that it was such a privilege to have footage of real people and we had quite a lot. I knew that any actor worth her salt would just study that and I knew that I had to do my homework. I actually went in as Mildred, and I never do that in auditions because I feel a bit embarrassed, to be honest. I was very nervous, and so was Jeff, but I knew I had to do it. I didn't actually hear that I got the part until about a year later.
RN: And then it was a year after that when we began filming, so I lived with Mildred for two years. I will say that regardless if I would have gotten the role or not, I was just so fascinated by this couple. I fell in love with Mildred, and I couldn't get her out of my head, and that was fine with me because I really liked having her in my life. I liked knowing that this woman existed. I called her part of this regiment of unknown soldiers, and these are especially Black women whose stories have been discarded or sidelined for whatever reason but who have made a huge contribution. In Mildred's case, she actually changed the Constitution of the United States. For that reason alone, I was expecting a statue of her or something. However, it's only people who have a special interest in Civil Rights history or people who go to law school; because they study Loving v. Virgina that know about her. I was kind of shocked by that.
AT: When did you first learn about Mildred Loving and Loving v. Virgina?
RN: Like Nancy [Buirski], I didn't really find out about Mildred Loving until her obituary in 2008. I thought that in itself was quite saddening, and Nancy did as well. I think that's what drove her fascination with the story. Everyone who watches Nancy's documentary falls in love with Mildred and indeed Richard. I think it's very important for us to celebrate and honor this couple and share them. The documentary is also extraordinary and really was the genesis of our film. That's what Colin Firth and Ged Doherty saw when they decided to make this film, and it's the first film they made under their production company, Raindogs Films.
AT: Did this character change you in any way?
RN: I don't know if embodying Mildred changed me, but it reinforced things that I knew about the world and humanity in a very good way. It made me consider what we are capable of. It made me in many ways less cynical. I thought if this woman can do that...I fell in love with her tenacity. Even though she was quite quiet and reserved, she had this deep strength and steeliness especially when it came to her family. It was something that I heard about many Black women of that era; this quietness wasn't just a personality trait necessarily, it was a necessity for survival. And yet, there was this strength that was bolstering and actually bolstered communities and I was fascinated.
AT: Does it frighten you at all that this was all happening less than 50 years ago?
RN: Not really. "Loving" was the first film to be shown in the new SmithsonianNational Museum of African American History and Culture, and I think if you go through that museum you wouldn't be surprised because of everything that has happened. I mean, it's surprising as a human being but, if you really immerse yourself into what was happening at the time, it's not surprising. Those were violent times and a lot of people who were living then have come up to me and talked about the tension of the period because it was a huge tumultuous time of change. I think that we forget that racism was reinforced by the law. So, it didn't surprise me that the law and the legislature were trying to keep white people and Black people apart. Property rights are in there as well, so it's really very intricate. I will say, I'm glad this is shocking and surprising to people who might not know this exist. It's kind of agitating people out of complacency and exposing how late we were coming to equality. Also, sometimes there isn't equality in the law. Just because it says so doesn't mean that that law is being put to practice. I think we are naive to that; I think Ava DuVernay's "13th" shows that just because something should be, doesn't mean that it is.
AT: One of the scenes that struck me the most in the film was when Mildred is sitting in the jail cell, heavily pregnant. The fear that just ran throughout that entire sequence was palpable. How did you prepare for that?
RN: It was quite tough because I felt the isolation she must have felt, but nowhere near as heavy and as deep as she must have felt it. You have to remember that I had a lovely cast, crew, and director who were very aware that I was doing this scene and everyone was feeling this energy. I think that it was just a reverential moment because Mildred was nineteen years old, heavily pregnant and she was there for five days, maybe more. Richard got bailed after the first night, but they wouldn't let him get her out. You have to think about it, the men's jail cell was right next door, and there was no female pat down like we get in the airport today. There was only a male sheriff, and I cannot imagine how terrifying that must have been; I can't. I just sat with her and tried to be as honest to her as possible, and I tried to really convey that on screen. However, I must stress that nothing I ever experienced could have been more terrifying than what she experienced.
AT: How do you feel about all of the Oscar buzz surrounding "Loving"?
RN: I think it's great because people will see our film! (Laughing)
AT: What do you want viewers to take away from watching the film?
RN: Our common humanity. All of this division and divisiveness and wall building and borders, I think our film exposes the folly of that rhetoric, I really do because it's man made. This isn't who we really are as human beings; it's entirely man-made for reasons concerning power and holding on to power for a small few. I think we are capable of great depth of humanity for ourselves and others. We're capable of real hope; we really are. Anyone can change the world; anyone. There are always obstacles, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try because sometimes your voice will be heard, sometimes you transcend those obstacles.
AT: Despite her quiet nature, Mildred constantly showed perseverance and strength. How did you get that across to the audience?
RN: As a mother with this family who is looking to you, I don't know how much fear you can really show, or how much fear you want to show. I think it's in those moments, especially during those phone call moments in the film, I think you see her fear when you see her relief. You see the weight of what she must have been carrying when you see that relief. You see that in a lot of people because you see what they must have been living under because they've been so good at showing up and persevering and doing the work. It's funny sometimes when you step back from a situation and realize the enormity of what you've had to deal with, and they had to deal with it for nine years.
AT: What do you love about being a storyteller?
RN: I love being a storyteller because I love connecting with people. I love disappearing into other worlds. It's also a way that we understand one another even though we may have differences. I think differences are great because they make our lives more fascinating and I'm grateful for all of the storytelling in films that I've experienced.
AT: What is the one thing you would say to Mildred today if you got the opportunity?
RN: I would say thank you. My mom's white and my dad's Black so this story obviously has resonance for me. But also, I don't think this is just a Black story or a story for people of color. "Loving" is an American story. This is a story of two human beings, and I think the whole of America will be proud of it.
AT: Thank you so much, Ruth, it was wonderful speaking with you!
RN: Thanks so much.You can check out Shadow and Act’s review of the film here.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami