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In ‘Loving,’ an American story about a marriage worth fighting for

November 15, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
A new movie, "Loving," tells the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia couple who were arrested because interracial marriage was illegal in their home state. They appealed their case and won a landmark civil rights ruling at the Supreme Court. Jeffrey Brown speaks with director Jeff Nichols and others about how they brought the love story to the screen.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The film “Loving” opened nationwide over the weekend. It tells the true story of Richard and Loving, rural Virginians of different races who married in Washington, D.C.

On return to their home in Virginia, they were arrested for violating laws against interracial marriage. Their case eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JOEL EDGERTON, Actor, “Richard Loving”: I’m going to build you a house right here, our house.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Loving” tells the real-life love story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia couple who married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in their home state.

Returning home, they were roused from their bed at night and arrested.

RUTH NEGGA, Actor, “Mildred Loving”: I’m his wife.

ACTOR: That’s no good here.

JEFFREY BROWN: A local judge gave them a choice: Spend a year in jail or leave the state for 25 years. They left, but later returned and appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and a landmark civil rights ruling, Loving vs. Virginia, striking down anti-miscegenation laws across the country.

ACTOR: Is there anything you would like me to say to the Supreme Court justices of the United States?

JOEL EDGERTON: Yes. Tell the judge I love my wife.

JEFF NICHOLS, Writer/Director, “Loving”: This was one of the greatest love stories in American history, and I had no clue about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Loving” director Jeff Nichols:

JEFF NICHOLS: I grew up in Little Rock. I went to Little Rock Central High, which was the site of the desegregation crisis in ’57.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of its own history, right?

JEFF NICHOLS: You know, I felt like I was — had a pretty good foundational knowledge of civil rights history in this country. And to not be aware of Richard and Mildred, to not know Loving vs. the State of Virginia, I was kind of shocked by that, to be honest.

And I felt like others need to know about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet the film Nichols made is not a typical historical drama. It emphasizes personal stories, rather than sweeping movements, two people who wanted only to live their lives and found themselves thrust into history.

There’s a scene in which Mildred is watching television about the civil rights march.

JEFF NICHOLS: Yes, in ’63.

RUTH NEGGA: You boys stop that wrestling. Come help Ms. Laura with her groceries.

ACTOR: Coming in around this plaza surrounding Lincoln Memorial.

ACTRESS: They say there’s 100,000 people there.

ACTOR: Standing by along the parade route.

ACTRESS: Can you imagine?

RUTH NEGGA: Halfway around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s in the same city, but she’s not really part of it, in a way.

JEFF NICHOLS: No, she doesn’t feel like she’s part of that movement. And she doesn’t even feel like she’s part of that town. It was literally in the ether outside her front door.

But I think she was separated more than just by physical space. It was — it was, she didn’t see herself as part of that movement, for some reason.

MILDRED LOVING, Wife of Richard Loving: We was married on the second day of June, and the police came after us on the 14th of July.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nichols also wrote the screenplay for “Loving,” which he based on the 2012 HBO documentary “The Loving Story” Directed by Nancy Buirski.

RICHARD LOVING, Husband of Mildred Loving: They came one night and just knocked a couple times. I heard them. And before I could get up, they just broke the door and came on in.

JEFF NICHOLS: I just fell in love with these two people. I just felt like I knew who they were.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who were they? What did you see in them?

JEFF NICHOLS: Well, in Richard, I saw my grandfather. I saw a man that was a working-class man that was unable to articulate his emotions and his frustrations, but that was good at really one thing, which was working hard and providing for his family.

And then, in Mildred, I saw actually a lot of my grandmother as well, in that, when you’re married to a man like that, you have to become the emotional voice of that couple. You know, my grandmother was the one to write the birthday cards, and give us hugs.

But Mildred not only had to be the emotional voice. She had to be the person that wrote a letter to Bobby Kennedy that started a — you know, a court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and changed this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Loving” is a story grounded in American history, but in a twist that may surprise audiences, Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard, is Australian, and Ruth Negga, playing Mildred, grew up in Ireland, daughter to an Ethiopian man and Irish woman.

RUTH NEGGA: We may lose the small battles, but win the big war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did it resonate personally for you?

RUTH NEGGA: Of course. It can’t not.

I mean, black and white and mixed race, those are things that are part of me from since I was a child.

But I think the energy, the ideology, the spirit of this story is completely universal, you know? And that’s why it’s resonated with people. And I don’t think you need to be American to feel it or act it.

I mean, this is a universal couple. This is a couple that the world should be proud of, not least America. This is a couple that — that may be unknown to Americans, but now they — there’s another couple to add to the canon of people that you can be proud of in the civil rights struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was your way in to Richard? What was the thing you felt you had to kind of get to portray him?

JOEL EDGERTON: Silence, the silence of injustice, I think, you know, but silence and stoicism, but emasculation and impotency of not being able to provide and protect,

I can take care of you.

RUTH NEGGA: I know that.

JOEL EDGERTON: I can take care of you.

RUTH NEGGA: I know.

JOEL EDGERTON: There’s an engine in a man that says, I have to be the protector and the provider.

And I could see in Richard that he had all those abilities and facilities kind of stripped of him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nichols, who also wrote and directed the sci-fi thriller “Midnight Special” out this year and 2012’s drama “Mud,” also drew on very human feelings within a larger story.

JEFF NICHOLS: I don’t care what genre I’m working in, if it’s a sci-fi film, which I made last year, or if it’s a period piece drama in this case. I want to make films that emotionally affect the audience.

So, when I’m sitting back, and I’m thinking about things, I am struck by an emotion that’s palpable. In this film, it was Richard Loving coming home from the bar, sitting down at the edge of his wife’s bed, and saying, “I can take care of you. I can take care of you,” when everyone watching that moment, his wife included, knows that he can’t.

That struck me. That made me feel something. And if I get shivers, if I get tingles, then it’s my job as a storyteller to carry that feeling all the way through the writing, all the way through the production and the editing, so that, when an audience sits down, they can feel it. That’s all I want to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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