Jeff Nichols has spent the last several months struggling to explain his attraction to his latest project, Loving, the first story he has brought to film that wasn’t his own invention. “But this morning I woke up with the epiphany of how to talk about it,” he smiles, on a sofa at The London in West Hollywood in late October. “Everybody asks me, ‘Why did you tell this story?’ And inevitably I say, ‘[Producers] Nancy Buirski, Colin Firth and Ged Doherty brought it to me.’ But I realized: no. It’s because this is one of the greatest love stories in American history.”
The story Nichols is telling belongs to Richard and Mildred Loving. Married in Washington D.C. in July 1958, they travelled back to their small home in Central Point, Virginia and were promptly arrested. Their crime? Mildred was black, Richard was white, and their home state was still under the rule of the Racial Integrity Act, which prevented interracial marriage. As one of the judges who presided over their case put it, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
They plead guilty and were sentenced to a year in jail, but the judge suspended their sentence on the condition that the couple be banished from Virginia for a quarter century. They moved to D.C., and tried to acclimatize to city living. But they missed their home, they missed their families, and they saw no kind of justice in their predicament. So Mildred wrote to Robert Kennedy, who referred their case to the ACLU, starting a series of legal challenges that led all the way to the Supreme Court.
“And they changed the constitution,” declares Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred in Nichols’ film. “So why is it that the majority of people I’ve met had never heard of them? When Nancy [Buirski] made her documentary [HBO’s The Loving Story] she couldn’t find anything until she happened upon this contemporary documentary footage, which had never been used. She had first heard about the story in Mildred’s obituary in 2008, and it was only a sliver in the obituary that stuck, and that was, ‘they changed the constitution.’”
Indeed, Richard and Mildred’s appeal was upheld in a unanimous decision in the Supreme Court, after their lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, conveyed a message Richard had given them: “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” The decision made anti- miscegenation laws unenforceable in the United States, though many remained on statute books, with Alabama holding out as late as 2000. This one, aptly-named pair changed the lives of countless interracial couples for decades to come, and their legacy lived on further, affecting legislation around same-sex unions also.
So Nichols’s film is a necessary corrective; a chance for the Lovings’ story to spread far and wide. And yet, it’s taken Nichols all this time, since completing his movie and its Cannes premiere in May, to rationalize his response to it. “It’s so quiet that it almost feels like I can’t be histrionic in talking about it, but there was great weight to it,” he explains. “There’s this cumulative power that slowly happens throughout the course of the film. You get these small moments, but by the end it’s landing these knockout, emotional punches, and it’s because it all adds up to this amazing love story.”
The footage Buirski found for her documentary goes some way to explaining why Richard and Mildred might not have become instant icons for the Civil Rights movement, even as their case caused such profound change. With newsreel cameras in their faces, Richard and Mildred are shy, polite and— especially in Richard’s case—almost entirely silent. They’re also sweetly considerate of one another, as though they’ve each always got one eye on taking care of the other. A photographer for Life Magazine captured the shot of Richard and Mildred that hints at the beautiful simplicity of their life together: watching a sitcom on the couch in their tiny apartment, Richard’s head is cradled in Mildred’s lap, as the pair share a laugh. They didn’t seek fame for their actions; they just wanted to be together.
“They wouldn’t have come to the premiere,” Negga laughs. Says Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard, “He would probably only have come if Mildred had made him.
“There’s something in how fated they seem,” Edgerton continues, “because of his last name, and because of the image of the two of them together. Bill or Bernie—one of their attorneys—had said that when they met Richard, he looked more like the kind of person who would be opposed to a marriage like that. That image of the two of them together—her, this beautiful, brown and regal princess, and him, the redneck—is undeniable.”
For Negga and Edgerton, finding these two characters on set meant interpreting and interpolating from the documentary footage. Negga credits Nichols with doing the heavy lifting on the behind-closed-doors nature of their lives together. “Those moments are all his supervising of it,” she insists. “I don’t think this couple had different public and private faces. I think what you see in the documentary is generally who they were. The beautiful challenge is that you have parts to the jigsaw puzzle, and then it’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to complete it in as truthful and authentic a way as possible.”
“It’s about that intimacy, without words,” notes Edgerton, “and the understanding and support and the comradery and knowing who leads and who follows, who comforts and who needs comforting. A movie relationship is generally a very different thing. It’s often overtures of love. It speaks to you about how much they care, and it’s billowing curtains and sex scenes. With this, we’re deep into a relationship at this point, and it’s two people who could almost finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, and anticipate each other’s needs.”
Indeed, the film opens at the close, with Mildred telling Richard that she’s pregnant. It was a moment of revelation for Nichols when he discovered that their wedding was hastily arranged after Mildred became pregnant (they would go on to have three children together), and he knew immediately that he had his opening scene. “The more I analyze all this, I do realize that as a writer, that’s a representational scene and it’s kind of what you look for,” he explains. “They work on multiple levels. In the moment, the behavior is correct, but then it’s representative of all this stuff that has come before. You know immediately that they have an intimate relationship. You know immediately that they love one another, because of the way he responds to her. You know something about their personalities; that they are fairly meek people. And then you know there’s trouble, because here we are, looking at these two people, one white, one black. They’re in period clothing and they are pregnant. It’s nervous, it’s joyous, it’s loving and it’s dangerous, all at the same time.”
He relates it to that famous Life Magazine photograph. The whole of their lives explained in a single moment. “Talk about a complex amalgam of thoughts in one image. That’s what the opening scene is for me, and narratively it just gets you started.”
It’s these kinds of images that haunted Nichols when he first heard the Lovings’ story. “The documentary haunts you first, and then the script started to haunt me. It shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative, yet it really is haunting. This was Richard and Mildred’s story. I seeped myself in it for months—or a year, between research and writing—and then I’m back out of it and I’m going to make Midnight Special, and when I come back, it’s all still there.”
He had the feeling again, during the shoot for Midnight Special, when it occurred to him that perhaps Edgerton might be right for Richard. And it recurred once more when he auditioned Negga for Mildred—a sense he got that Mildred was living inside her, somewhere.
The strength of her performance, he says, is explained in the way she plays the scene in which Mildred receives a phonecall to relate the Supreme Court’s positive decision. “She wouldn’t burst out of the door and run across to him yelling and screaming,” Nichols reasoned. “She would walk out, see her husband playing with her kids in the yard, and just know that that image was finally protected and safe.
“When you hand those script pages to someone like Ruth, they’re charged with emotion, but I couldn’t do what she does. I can know it in my mind, but I can’t somehow process it through my heart and then have it spill out of my pores, and that’s what great actors do. I help. I help with David Wingo’s score, and I do a slow push in when it matters. But everything’s going on in her face; the thousands of muscles that are operating, and her eyes, and her pupils. I would watch that all day long.”
“There’s a real purity to Mildred that I think people recognize and are attracted to,” Negga says. “A lack of cynicism, and a composure. Hope is a key theme of this film, and she was a hopeful person. You’re drawn to those people as well, because they inspire hope in you, and I think she was very much the rock of her family, and for Richard. You want to orbit that.”
Richard and Mildred Loving never expressed any anger about the dire situation that Virginia lawmakers forced on them. “But I think they were angry,” Negga insists. “In that time period, you had to be very careful about how you expressed it. There was a cost involved. Even just protesting this sentence resulted in a brick through their window. There was intimidation.”
“The first time you suffer any kind of oppression, you get back up and want to fight,” says Edgerton. “The second and the third time, it diminishes your facility to stand up and you learn to shut your mouth. Richard is checkmated by his own inability to joust with certain people. Whereas Mildred was tiptoeing and looking over the perimeter fence that was set out for them, Richard was always looking for the back door, the way out, back to where they were. I think he was trying to will them back to a simpler place. Mildred was shrewd enough to know that it wasn’t going to correct itself without any effort.”
It took Richard and Mildred Loving nine years, from the date of their marriage, to fight the case that sought to exile them from their home. 17 happy years followed, before Richard’s death in an automobile accident, when a drunk driver ran into them. Mildred died in 2008, leaving an obituary that led Nancy Buirski to her documentary, and eventually to Loving.
Whether they would have felt comfortable at the premiere or not, it seems a further injustice that they aren’t around to watch their legacy earn its undeniable permanence in the history books. Still, a year before her death, Mildred had given a rare interview to the Associated Press, insisting again that she had no designs on being a hero. “It wasn’t my doing,” she told the reporter. “It was God’s work.”