In the movie “Loving,” Ruth Negga gives what is easily one of the best onscreen performances of the year. Period.
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.
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.
They weren’t making a statement, they just wanted to be in love. Ruth Negga
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.
There are some people who believe Hollywood is too quick to laud films about black people in the past, about slavery and the Civil Rights era and so on. What do you think about that?
I think if we don’t understand history, if we don’t keep referring back to it, we become complacent. And complacency, as we all know, it leads to repeating history. Anyone who says, “Oh that’s the past. Oh history is done and gone,” they’re either scared, or they’ve got a reason to not advance things.
You mentioned earlier how part of what pulled you to this film was the opportunity to see a character and play a character who looked like you. You’re one of only a few non-white actresses I regularly see in genre shows and movies (like “Preacher,” “Misfits,” “World of Warcraft”) in addition to serious dramas like “Loving.” Is that a conscious choice?
I don’t think I’ve necessarily been able to pick and choose in my career, I don’t know how many people do. But I’ll tell you what I’ve been able to do, I’ve been able to say no. It is the only thing you can hold on to sometimes, is that ability to say “no.” And I think that in that way you can create some kind of career. And then you can sort of lobby for the parts you want. Because I also don’t want to do parts that I don’t think I’d be any good at. I don’t need to be everywhere, I don’t need to be working all the time. I don’t need to be doing parts just because I think it’s a stepping stone to getting somewhere else.
What I have wanted to do is take roles that are unexpected for people who look like me. Roles that the establishment would say, “Oh, she couldn’t possibly be that.” Because, why not? Like when some people said about me playing Tulip in “Preacher,” “She doesn’t look like her!” Just because I don’t look like her doesn’t mean I don’t have her spirit, and that fierceness, and that vulnerability. Those don’t have colors. Those are human emotions that are universal. And it seems really simple to you and I, but I don’t know if it is to many people.
Do you think things are changing, in terms of greater inclusion in Hollywood for people of color?
Well, I realized quite recently I didn’t grow up [seeing] anyone who looked like me as a kid. That’s really sad to me. But I think it is changing, because I think now people are refusing to accept that that is the status quo. I feel quite more confident about it because there is this buoyancy to that movement. I feel more confident about not keeping my mouth shut, either. I don’t like being a spokesperson, but I think everyone has a duty of care to whoever might be coming next. I really do believe that.
“Loving” is in theaters across the United States now.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Negga starred in “12 Years A Slave.” She was not featured in the film.