DOLBY THEATRE, LOS ANGELES--This November Ruth Negga wore her dark chocolate eyes and arresting smile atop countless gingham and plaid dresses against an array of dull backdrops —unpainted wooden houses, painted white ones, dirt roads, cornfields, dirty apartment rooms and the white marble steps of the Supreme Court—in her lead role as Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols’ film depiction of the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-interracial marriage laws. At this year’s Oscars, which took place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on February 26th, Negga was none the less resplendent in the candy apple lace gown she paired with oxblood pumps and ruby crown and earrings; affixed to her chest and surrounded by carmine lace was a break from her outfit’s scheme: the bright blue of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pin.
While it lacked in color coordination, the blue pin made up for in spirit; the ribbon was a symbol of the organization’s latest citizen outreach program, an initiative called “Stand with ACLU” that, as Deadline Hollywood explained, “gives artists an opportunity to express their support for the rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution to everyone in the United States.” The news source further explained that the blue ribbon is a symbol of solidarity which “acknowledges the commitment of those on the front lines—in the courts, legislatures and in the streets—who are working to ensure that our precious freedoms and values are preserved.”
The ACLU is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to protecting the rights of and upholding the core democratic values in the United States. Formed in 1920 by Roger Nash Baldwin and grown out of Crystal Eastman’s 1917-founded pro-freedom-of-speech organization, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, or CLB, the ACLU has worked for decades to ensure protection of constitutional freedoms to all Americans, and has played a formative role in definitive cases such as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, where the organization fought for Scopes’ right to defy anti-evolution teaching standards, and United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in which they overturned the American ban on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’
Given the role the ACLU played in the landmark Loving v. Virginia case which defined Negga’s movie, the enthusiasm the actress had for the organization evidently went beyond the ACLU’s connection to the character she embodied on the screen. When Negga spoke to USA Today’s Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, she spoke both to the ACLU’s role in Loving as well as her own individual conviction in the nonprofit. “Well, they’re a huge part of our film,” said Negga, “They help Richard and Mildred change the Constitution of the United States and they fight for civil rights and I’m all for that. So should everybody be.”
While mentioning their historical relevance, Negga also espoused the organization’s relevance today. “Charities like that are important now,” she continued, “And they’re kind of a watchdog of sorts . . . They’ve been around for a very long time and I think that—sometimes—now, more than ever, we need them.” When asked whether recent politics had altered the Oscar’s focus, Negga insisted that defending human rights is not a political matter. “I don’t think it’s necessarily politics,” she said, “I think it’s about caring about humanity, you know, so that we progress and move forward, and I think that you don’t need to be politically-minded to care about that, or have an opinion about that, or have a voice. It’s just about speaking your truth and standing up for what you believe in.”
However singular was her explanation, Negga was far from alone in her activism. Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who took home a golden figure for the film Fantastic Beasts, similarly sported a pin, a turquoise ampersand representative of GLAAD, or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; best actress winner Emma Stone, who donned an almost-camouflaged Planned Parenthood pin with her gold Givenchy dress. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his mother, Luz Towns-Miranda, model Karlie Kloss, Manchester By the Sea star Casey Afleck and Fifty Shades Darker lead Dakota Johnson were among others who similarly sported such accessories.
While many have criticized Hollywood for its ignorance to and distance from the day-to-day hardships and labors of average Americans—the ACLU ribbon does look to be a bit of a comical juxtaposition, I’ll admit, pinned to Karlie Kloss’s hipbone—if this year’s Oscars tells us anything, maybe it’s that Tinseltown isn’t as distant as we’ve pegged it as. Maybe its films and their respective actors and directors, screenwriters and producers aren’t illusive figures in the far lots and warehouses belonging to Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures but rather are, as Viola Davis painted them in her speech of the same night, the forces responsible for uncovering and highlighting America’s stories.
“I became an artist—and thank God I did,” spoke Davis in her acceptance speech, “Because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” The same opinion was espoused by Negga. In her interview with the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the actress replied in her Limerckian accent and out of the vibrancy of her ruby-hued ensemble to say that viewers thanked her for her portrayal of a previously-hidden portion of American life. “Thank you,” said Negga, “They said ‘Thank you for telling my story.’”