Zeba BlayVoices Culture Writer, The Huffington Post
Joel Edgertgon and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving in “Loving.”
She isn’t flashy or overemotional, but rather ignites the screen with a quiet gravitas. She plays the soft-spoken Mildred Loving, a Black and Native American woman who took on the state of Virginia in 1967 for the right to stay married to her husband Richard Loving, who was white. The couple had been sentenced to a year in prison for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. At the time of the case, a total of 16 states had similar laws, known as “anti-miscegenation” laws.
Because of the Lovings and their landmark case, Loving vs. Virginia, the laws banning interracial marriage across the South were struck down, deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And yet, despite a 1996 TV movie and a stellar 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski, the Lovings and their story are still widely unknown. The real Mildred and Richard Loving, after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Virginia law banning marriage between African Americans and Caucasians was unconstitutional.
That’s all about to change with “Loving,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Negga opposite Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving. The film has been building up steady buzz since it premiered at Cannes in May, and various outlets have described it as “Oscar bait.” But it is so much more than that.
At its heart is Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress known for small roles in films like “World War Z” and “The Samaritan” and a current role on AMCs “Preacher.” Negga is poised for superstardom and accolades thanks to her performance in the film, out Friday, but the 35-year-old actress is far more concerned with making sure the Lovings’ legacy is recognized.
In a conversation with Negga earlier this week, the actress expounded upon the power of the Loving story, the absurdity of racism, and making space for other actresses of color:
It’s wild that the Lovings made such an impact on so many lives with their case, and yet very few people are aware of their story. Did you know about the Lovings prior to joining this film?
I knew about the Supreme Court case, but I didn’t know about the couple behind it until I came upon Mildred’s obituary [a few years ago], which I found deeply emotional. When I auditioned for Jeff he gave me the documentary by Nancy Buirski, and I watched it and I just fell in love with this couple.
I’ve known about the history [of anti-miscegenation laws], but it’s still quite shocking to watch old footage and hear people give reasons for that racism as if they’re being totally logical. It made me so angry. None of it made sense. None of it. I remember thinking, what’s so terrifying about us? That these laws were made? I thought, “This is a story that really needs to be told.”
Were you at all daunted by the idea of playing someone like Mildred Loving? Someone so important, but so little known? Did you feel an added responsibility to “get it right?”
I was daunted, but I wasn’t daunted to the point where I didn’t want to do it. I think I was really propelled by my own need to see people like that on a screen. My own need to see a story like this being told. My own personal need to see people like me on the screen. That became stronger than my fear, which I’m glad about. I felt like I was the right age, had the right spirit. I felt a confidence that I hadn’t felt before. And it wasn’t that I had this huge super ego about it. It was that I felt this was the right story at the right time and I knew I would work hard. I knew I’d have the graft to do her justice.
What’s so powerful about this story is how ordinary the Lovings were, despite the huge impact that they made. But there’s this idea that interracial relationships are somehow always about making some sort of statement, or that just by virtue of being in an interracial relationship a couple has “solved” racism. What do you think of that?
We deify most leaders of any movement because they’re super charismatic and they have this sort of glow, they’re really good orators. This couple wasn’t. And yet they were equally as charismatic and compelling, in a very quiet way. They weren’t making a statement, they just wanted to be in love.
I think it’s kind of uncomfortable that anyone would accuse a relationship of being a maneuver. I find it very difficult that we still ask people in these relationships to explain themselves, constantly.
This couple wasn’t giving an “F U” to the establishment. This wasn’t an act of defiance. It was about, “I want to raise my family where I want to. I want to legitimize the rights of my children.” But I do think that the deeper involved they got in this movement, Mildred realized the deep unfairness of this, and that it wasn’t just going to effect her it was going to effect other couples. She felt that that was a good thing if that was the fall out of their struggle. It’s such a complex situation.
The Lovings have both passed, but they have one surviving daughter: Peggy Loving Fortune. Were you able to connect with her at all?
Yeah she was on set with us quite often. We had talks. It’s private. I don’t really want to share our chats because she’s quite a private woman as well. Maybe I should have asked her more questions, maybe I could have asked her more questions, but I don’t really like asking questions that are unnecessary for the sake of asking questions. It’s showing that you’re being a good student rather than doing the work. The thing with Peggy is that, of course we wanted her a approval. But I think we would have known if she was not happy. I do believe that. Because she’s not a pushover. This is her family. And I think that she wanted to be a true legacy.