‘Loving’ Actress Ruth Negga Dissects Mildred Loving And Her Quest For Equality
On an oddly warm November day in New York City, the Gemma Restaurant at the Bowery Hotel was patroned by a few. A mother of two holding her son’s hand and scolding her pre-teen daughter engulfed in her cell phone as she nearly walked into a bar stool was about as about as busy as the Italian restaurant got during the mid-day. The morning staff was cleaning up as the night staff began stocking glasses, cutlery and plates for the evening rush.
Press had begun for the Jeff Nichols directed film Loving, a romantic drama about interracial Virginia couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were wed in D.C. and began building their life back in the country. Their marriage soon made its way to the sheriff resulting in the couple’s arrest. Richard, a white man, was able to make bail the next morning. Mildred, a pregnant 19-year-old however, stayed in prison a few days. To avoid jail time, the court in Central Point, Va., banished the couple to D.C and ordered them never to return for 25 years.
From there, the film follows the couple as their civil rights case, Loving. v. Virginia, makes its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of their right to marry. Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga take on the emotionally complex task of playing Richard and Mildred. Despite his tough demeanor, it was Richard who was often paralyzed by fear for himself and his family. Mildred however, continued to fight. Mildred’s approach, similarly to her personality, was quiet yet steady. She never made a fuss, but it was her unrelenting zeal to protect her husband and children that motivated her to write a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which would later change history.
Months removed from the role she said she took two years preparing for, Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian and Irish actress walks into the Gemma Restaurant main dinning room holding a plate full of lettuce, tomato and chicken. It was the 34-year-old’s first meal for the day. Negga, although 5-foot-3-inches has a much taller and grander personality. Bold in her speech, and matter-of-fact in her responses, Negga admits she’s more reactive than the demure Mildred, and has a bit more fire. We sat for 15 minutes or so, and chatted about the film’s intricacies and reveal despite the positive outcome, Mildred’s true intentions was to keep her family together. Challenging the United States government and winning, well that was just the cherry on top.
Vibe: How did you become Mildred?
Ruth Negga: I did my work, I did my homework I studied her. I studied how she moved, how she walked, her dialect, her vocal intonation and we had this archive of footage that was valuable and in my mind I put it in the gaps. I think when you spend enough time with someone you sort of anticipate their differences. Working with Jeff [Nichols] and Joe [Edgerton] I got to see what they would be when the cameras roll, but I think it’s also an evolution of a human being that starts off as a very young girl and she’s telling [Richard] that she’s pregnant. I mean, It’s a normal response.
In the film, it was Mildred who was more welcoming of the media in regards to getting their story out. Richard was not.
Well he was desperately shy, they both were inherently shy and I think that neither of them, he definitely didn’t want media attention. She saw it as a way to attain what they both wanted eventually. I don’t think she really knew how, but it was small steps of moving in the right direction with raising their family and living where they wanted to and that was the most important thing for Mildred. She didn’t set out to be an activist. She didn’t set out to invalidate the American Constitution, yet those are things that happened and I’m sure she’s glad of it. But how brave would you have been, or I have been to do that? I think if she would’ve seen it in those big terms it would’ve been overwhelming.
Mildred later writes a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Kennedy refers her to the ACLU. What do you think she would’ve done if Kennedy never responded to her letter?
Thats a good question. I think she would have found her way to the ACLU anyway. I think the letter was a turning point in her life when she became committed.
You think the letter is when she became committed, and not when her son got hit by the car in D.C?
Oh no, I think that was when she was going to leave D.C. Those are two different things but they’re parallel. She was going to move back home to Virginia, but she became committed to pursue law when her friend said ‘You need to get yourself some civil rights.’ It was many different moments but I think that if her son didn’t get hit by a car, she was moving [back to Virginia] and she didn’t care. I think the lesson is her pursuing justice, and I think she would’ve found another lane, or another avenue because you have to remember she wrote another letter saying ‘Please don’t forget this.’ So that’s a woman who’s not letting this go.
How do you think the film will speak to the social media generation that allegedly doesn’t believe in relationships?
I hope it speaks to them the same way it will speak to any human being. I think what this film is saying is we are capable of great kindness towards one another. We’re capable of great perseverance and we are obsessed with being sane, but what’s wrong with being equally different? I don’t really understand that? It doesn’t mean that we aren’t equal and I’m not saying separately that’s a completely different thing, but I’m saying that differences are there to make us more interesting. Differences are there to make us more intriguing to one another. Differences are there to be celebrated and I think that this film is just another reminder of that.
There’s a scene in the film where Mildred and Richard travel back to Virginia to have their baby. Richard goes outside on the porch and his mother says ‘Why did you have to marry that girl? You knew better.’ Even though white and black people lived well together in Central Point, that part in the film was jarring.
..and Garnett [Ruth’s sister] says ‘You knew what would happen?. Why’d you take her there?’ It’s very important that Jeff Nichols wanted viewers to know that this just wasn’t an upset of the white community, it was both communities and both would’ve seen this as why would you bother? Richard’s friend said ‘Why don’t you just divorce her?’ They didn’t understand why would you create any friction? Why would you want to upset what we have because all you’re doing is bringing tension and I don’t think that comes from a place of hatred or racism. I think it comes from community values. We’ve been doing it for this long, why would you bring any hassle into our community? I’m sure there were people who were disappointed, but Mildred and Richard wanted to get married and they wanted to legitimately be on their own, and for their children.
There’s also a part in the film where Richard is at the bar with some of Mildred’s brothers and the conversation around the table was Richard now knows what its like to be black. How do you think Mildred internalized or felt for Richard’s pain?
I think there’s a tradition for black women in those communities that women had to mind their communities, their children and their men, and when you take away a man’s way to provide for his family, or you take away his pride in himself and his relationship, I feel that sometimes women’s instinct is to give that back. I think they support their men from that sense and I think she’s doing the same. You see his impression at the jail. He says ‘That’s not right. That’s not fair’ What could he do? And that’s what Will’s character is saying. ‘Now you know what it’s like when you can’t protect your family.’I think that Mildred is just like a lot of women at that time. She’s representing a lot of black women at that and that’s their job is to give back that strength to their men in the community, which I find fascinating.
Has you definition of love changed from making this film?
I don’t believe in the definition of love. I don’t believe you can really define that, It’s too tangible. I think you know it when you see it and I think what [Richard and Mildred] do prove is that it can be such a tangible thing. It’s a very physical thing feeling love for someone. I don’t mean just falling in love and being attracted to someone, I mean really wanting the best for them and wanting to care for them and their respect and you see that in the documentary “The Loving Story: Home” For me they are the epitomes of love.