As both a black woman and filmmaker, I have been following Nichols’s journey with Loving over the past few years with interest, while developing my contemporary tale of an interracial, cross-cultural, and mixed-faith couple, loosely inspired by my chance meeting and subsequent romance with an Iranian immigrant. Abandoning the clichés and noise that often accompany cinematic tales of black women in interracial couplings, Nichols has fashioned the kind of day-in-the-life tale I myself strive to frame. Films like Loving ask us whether events that took place half a century ago still have relevance today. The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes.
For inasmuch as Loving is the story of our past, it is also our challenge in the present and for the future. In the time I have been developing my film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, I’ve become more convinced than ever that aspiring to be “colorblind” is not a practical answer to the issues of race and culture, that our goal of a “post-racial” nation remains as elusive as Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. Reality persists. Many of us grapple daily with seemingly conflicting desires: to express and embrace our history and culture, and also to transcend them, to move beyond the limits imposed by others — and too often, those we impose on ourselves. It is from this vantage point that I led my 15-minute conversation with Nichols during the recent media junket for Loving, which opened in theaters on November 4.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: I must confess that Mildred Loving is kind of my spirit guide.
JEFF NICHOLS: Oh really? Same with Ruth.
I didn’t actually have to embody her the way Ruth Negga does in Loving, but I did write a book back in 2012 called Swirling, which explored interracial, cross-cultural, and mixed-faith relationships from a black woman’s point of view.
Yes! I’ve not read it, but I know about it.
That’s certainly lovely to hear. Well, it was around the time I was editing the book that Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story aired on HBO. I’m intrigued by the fascination people have with Mildred and Richard’s story. Despite the now-infamous threat of divorce from your wife that made you take on this project, what was it about their story that made you want to bring it to the screen?
I think it was the nature of who they were as seen through the doc. I think maybe — I mean, it’s a complex thing — it’s this relationship that you have with them, once you see the documentary and witness their story. I think one big part of it is the sincerity with which they loved one another. It’s palpable, and it’s really important in the conversation — the conversation about marriage equality, for instance. There’s no agenda there. There’s nothing they’re trying to force onto us. In fact, I don’t think they really care about what we think. And because of that sincerity, it felt like something I could tell. Me, being a white guy born in 1978, I haven’t been subjected to anything like what they had to go through, but I felt like I understood that sincerity with which they loved one another. I saw it in my grandparents’ marriage. I saw it in my parents’ marriage. I’m trying to represent it in my marriage — and that just seemed so undeniable to me. And also so relevant.
I didn’t know about their story before 2012 when this documentary came to me.
Not at all?
Not at all. And I was angry about that. I graduated from Little Rock Central High in Arkansas in 1997, 40 years after the ’57 desegregation crisis. We were pretty well steeped in civil rights history — so I thought … And it just amazed me that a story this important, this integral to our American experience wasn’t on the lips of every American, wasn’t on their minds — especially in 2012. Especially now in 2016. So all these things are swirling around in my mind when I watch this documentary, but at the end of the day, you’re just looking at these two really sincere people. I just felt connected to them.
As a black woman, I’ve always connected to and appreciated Mildred, especially in the context of media and cinema, because hers is an interracial story of love, not of subjugation, and — as other journalists have already noted this about your film — a quiet story, and a quiet rebellion in the midst of the rallies and the protests that were happening during the Civil Rights movement. Can you talk about taking that approach in the story, and how their daughter, Peggy, might have helped inform and influence your sense of the couple?
The two are somewhat separate. Peggy’s quiet as well, to the point where that’s not who I went to for detail work — and, to be fair, she was five years old in ’67 when the court case came down; she wasn’t born until they were already well into their life in DC. And then she’s two years old, three years old, four years old, and so the type of detail I was trying to get was just everyday experiences: What kind of TV shows did you guys watch? Was there music in the home? Questions like this, that’s not what Peggy’s there for. I quickly realized Peggy was there, one, as a constant reminder of the responsibility we had as storytellers to get these people right — because they were real people, they were her parents, and that matters — but second, for permission, and I don’t mean legally, I mean this permission of, Yes, you’re on the right track.
I sat with her and showed her the script before we started shooting. She showed up about three times to the set, so she didn’t hover or anything like that, but there were really key moments when I would walk over to her and she would just nod and say, “That’s good. That’s good.” That was about the extent of the commentary. But it felt like it gave me confidence or permission to keep going down this path — and her reaction to the film: she said she loved it. So, again, you get what you can out of who you can, and that’s the role I quickly understood Peggy to have.
But when you ask about the quietness and the approach, that’s really me trying to understand the essence of Mildred and Richard, and do justice to that. The thing that a lot of people didn’t like about Mildred and Richard is that they existed — at all. How do you argue against your own existence? You can’t. You just go on living. You go to work. You have these beautiful children, and you raise them well, and that is your argument. So it made sense when laying out this story that we would focus on their existence, we would focus on their daily lives, because essentially that is the stand that they’re taking. He did not divorce her. You had this man, this white man, in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s — he could have divorced her. He could have removed himself from this looming psychological threat and danger, and returned to some modicum of white privilege that he was granted by his race, and he didn’t. And he didn’t because he loved his wife. And through his emasculation you see the strength of Mildred. You see that she’s supporting him more than he can support them, and there’s such beauty in that.
My grandfather was a lot like Richard. He was a propane truck driver in Altheimer, Arkansas, just outside of Pine Bluff — it’s a very small town.
My dad’s family is from Texarkana.
Ah, there you go. Other side. Other corner. Cotton land.
But what I kind of realized, examining my grandparents’ marriage, was when you’re married to a man like that, who’s so stoic, the woman in that relationship becomes the emotional voice of that couple, of that family. My grandmother’s the one who said, “We love you,” and wrote the birthday cards and gave us the hugs. I saw how that would fall on Mildred — but something more important falls on Mildred’s shoulders, which is to understand her place in history in this movement, and the bigger idea of this relationship to the world. So she then became not only the emotional voice, but the mouthpiece for this thing that went to the Supreme Court and changed our country.
After you agreed to the project, what was the most challenging thing for you in telling this story, the writing as well as the production?
It’s funny, because making independent films, which this is, you usually have all these war stories. This was a beautiful experience. It was beautiful from the day Ruth walked in and was the first person we auditioned. It was beautiful from the moment that Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub gave us $10 million to make this movie. [Whispers.] Ten million dollars! And the state of Virginia welcomed us with open arms. The people of Bowling Green welcomed us, let us shoot in that courthouse, let us shoot in that jail that she was held in. You know, it’s not — I don’t have that relationship with the experience, and as much as I want to answer your question thoughtfully, I have such fond memories of the experience. I felt like we were all carrying this thing, and Joel speaks to it that way, like we were all carrying this very delicate thing. You know, I make movies with my family, meaning this group of people I’ve been working with, really, since my first film, and we all came together and did this thing that we all respected and that we all cared for and, I mean, yeah, I just loved it.
But let me try to answer your actual question: there were narrative challenges of how to break down 10 years — really not even to break down 10 years but how to introduce these people to the audience, how to jump right into the middle but still catch people up. That first scene was something I struggled with finding. I mean, that’s the point where you’re going to start. The back half of the film is very strange. There’s no traditional climax in the three-act structure approach. There’s an emotional climax, a massive one, but you don’t know you’re watching the climax until it’s already there and Joel’s sitting at the end of that bed saying, “I can take care of you. I can take care of you.” [Snaps his fingers.] That’s where it is, and that’s what you realize we’ve actually been building toward. And that says so much about where he is, about where she is, about where they are. Those were challenges, but they were exciting ones. There was never any pushback from the producers — and there were lots of producers on this project — but they all believed in what we were trying to do, in what I was trying to do in my approach.
Focus Features bought it off of seeing nine minutes of footage, and have been an amazing partner in getting it out into the world. I, I … [Laughs.] It sounds too easy.
Considering the journey you had with your previous four films, easy would, then, be a nice thing.
It’s okay. [Laughs.] But I think it’s important because you hear so many stories, true ones, about the difficult parts of this industry — but people wanted to tell this story. And when that happens we should celebrate it.
What was it about telling this story as a narrative feature — granted the documentary did very well on HBO, and won an Emmy and a Peabody Award — that everyone embraced and that made this feel so …
Not to finish your question.
No problem; you seemed to know where I was going.
Well, because that was a question that was posed. The documentary’s great, so what do you need a feature for? And I think if we’re saying that the important thing about the Lovings is that the way they lived their lives was their argument, then watching that and getting to know that in an even more personal, more intimate way is essential. As great as that documentary is — and as amazing at that footage is — there’s still a barrier there. And that’s when movies can really work. I don’t think many movies are important, but sometimes they push through a barrier of empathy that allows us to relate with stories and subjects and people that we might not typically relate with. And that’s the definition of empathy — and that’s when movies, they can be great. They can actually be engines for change. We felt collectively — the whole team — that if we could put people in their shoes for a little while, that transition could happen, that empathy could be transferred to the audience, and that that might move the needle a little. I don’t know. But, yeah, there’s an intimacy that comes with narrative films that you can’t get with the documentary.
In researching for this interview and even as you’re talking now, one thing that I’m reminded of is something my co-writer and I wrote in a script we’ve developed that explores some of the themes from my book — the idea being that “the personal is the political.” When you talk about moving the needle a little bit, whether it be on marriage equality, or gender equality, or Black Lives Matter, how do you see personal stories, and small quiet moments in people’s lives, being able to change how we see policy — or, at the very least, how we see one another?
Yeah, I don’t want to give you a stock answer — although I have a good one. But I want to make sure I answer that exact question. [Pauses.] You know — and this is a version of my stock answer, so I apologize, but it’s a thoughtful one, I promise — equality is an idea. It’s a concept. It’s not something we necessarily achieve. It’s not something that we necessarily put away, like, We got this! We’re done.
We’re not there yet …
I don’t think we ever will be, because equality is an idea that we have to define for ourselves as a generation. It meant something different in 1960. There were different signs. Those water fountains: not fair. Those schools, separated: not fair. We’ve achieved breaking that down, but there’s all these other things we haven’t achieved. So now, as this generation, we have to say, “What do we want equality to mean?” How do we want to define it so that in 10, 20, 30 years, when people look back on us right now, we will be judged: How did we do? What were we concerned with? What were we effecting change in? And it points to a discussion. It points to, sometimes, an argument. This is what’s happening right now.
When you look at Richard and Mildred, they’re our guidepost. Not for the conclusion — because they wouldn’t give you the conclusion, they wouldn’t tell you how to live — that’s not what they’re there for. They can, through their example, show you how to talk about it so that you may have a religious conviction that puts you on the other side of marriage equality from where I’m at. Okay. But instead of just thinking about that conviction and how it relates to you, think about people that you’re talking about. Think about Richard and Mildred. Think about them now. That’s what they’re showing us. It’s a specific reminder that I think is relevant.
The reminder being that they lived and had this experience.
Yeah, and they raised beautiful children. And people told them that it wasn’t right. Those people were wrong. It didn’t have anything to do with these notions of superiority, these vestiges of slavery; all the things that created anti-miscegenation laws, they didn’t have anything to do with anything. It didn’t have anything to do with these two people. Had nothing to do with those beautiful children. And things like that are happening today.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, an author, and a filmmaker. Her feature film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, was among the selected scripts for the DreamAgo 2016 Plume & Pellicule international screenwriting atelier. Previous versions of the script progressed to the second round at the Sundance Labs and Austin Film Festival screenwriting competitions.