Joel Edgerton finds himself in the United States at a critical time — a time when the issue of race has returned with protests on the streets, unseen since the days of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
The Australian actor has been watching the rising tension around him, thinking of the time when America was segregated by law; when white and black could not share a meal together, let alone love each other.
Edgerton is one of the stars of the new film Loving, the story of an interracial marriage between white man Richard Loving and his black wife Mildred.
The couple married in Washington DC in 1958, but when they returned to their home over the border in Virginia they were arrested and charged with violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act.
They were sentenced to a year in jail which was suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and never return for 25 years.
‘A real challenge as an actor’
The film prompted Edgerton to think again about the whole issue of race.
“What’s really interesting is that we identify with what we look like on the outside — we all somewhere in our genealogy come from the same place and now we judge each other by the colour of our skin and treat each other differently,” he said.
Eventually the Lovings fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which delivered a landmark ruling in the couple’s favour in 1967.
It was a key case in breaking down the racial barriers in the US.
The film is a quiet meditation on race and love. It avoids the temptation to preach to the audience, instead, director and writer Jeff Nichols created a dignified film that explores a humanity that defies race.
Edgerton’s character, Richard, barely speaks in the film, challenging the actor to use his face and body movement to express what Richard could not say.
“Richard and Mildred were both interminably shy people, they were just placed in the middle of it because they got married and were thrown into prison for it and wanted to remain married rather than annul the marriage,” Edgerton said.
“Richard was so uninterested in having the media at his house, being photographed on the steps of the Supreme Court. I am a very verbal person … but to express things through other means than verbiage is a real challenge as an actor.”
Committed to making a difference
The role has led Edgerton to look not just at the United States, but the history of his own country of Australia.
At various times in several states there were laws regulating marriage between black and white, and at times even having sex with an Aboriginal women was outlawed.
State government protectors of Aborigines wanted to avoid breeding so-called “half-caste” children, considered at the time to be the “worst of both races”.
In 1937, Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities met in Canberra to solve the “half-caste problem”.
Edgerton said he was committed to making a difference in Australia. He works with the Hollows Foundation, which focuses on curing eye disease, not just among Indigenous Australians but also in other parts of the world.
“I’m here today hosting this Fred Hollows event which has a lot of resonance in terms of what I think is the discrepancy between education and health between white Australians and Indigenous Australians,” he said.
“I have talked a lot about the stolen generation in terms of the Loving story. One of Richard and Mabel’s big fears was about going to the Supreme Court; if they lost the case their three children may be deemed illegitimate and therefore taken away from them.”
Taking positive from a negative
Edgerton was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Richard Loving, and was considered unlucky not to have received an Academy Award nomination as well.
He is part of a golden age of Australian cinema, with actors, writers, directors and others in the industry carving out successful international careers.
“I like to speak about the work ethic of Australian people … I think people love working with us, we bring a lot of talent but we also bring a great attitude,” Edgerton said.
Edgerton’s career will keep him away from our shores as he has several projects in production. It means he will continue to live through a tumultuous time in American political life.
His role in Loving has given him a chance to peer into America’s past while he ponders his adopted home’s future.
“I’m very buoyed by the fact of taking positive from the negative. There’s an incredible show of support from the community in terms of the protests we are seeing … obviously there is foundation for fear and I think the media and politics and people in general have created a foundation of fear — we are all feeding it.
“The problem is it has become a generalised thing and now we have a situation where we are all broken up into groups. You’re a Muslim, you’re this and that … and that is one of the problems when it comes to racism.”
– Stan Grant is ABC’s Indigenous affairs editor