In 1996, Virginia Walden Ford was trying to do an ordinary thing against extraordinary odds. The single mother of a teenage son was trying to help him resist the temptations of easy drug money on the streets and focus on his education, but the D.C. public school system was failing them both. After enrolling him in private school, Ford realized, like many working-class families, that she simply couldn’t afford to keep him there, and questioned why parents had so little recourse when it came to their children’s futures.
Walden Ford’s subsequent fight for school choice and the passage of the nation’s first-ever Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2003 is documented in the film Miss Virginia, starring Emmy winner Uzo Aduba in the titular role. The Orange Is the New Black star is joined by a stellar cast which includes Matthew Modine (Stranger Things, 47 Meters Down), Aunjanue Ellis (The Help) Niles Fitch (This Is Us) and her good friend Amirah Vann (Underground).
BET.com spoke with Udoba, a product of the Massachusetts public school system, about the timeliness of this film in an era where the actions of one citizen can impact a nation for years to come.
What did you learn about Virginia Walden Ford while filming the movie?
Uzo Aduba: I learned that power can be quiet. She’s a woman who holds space, but she’s much more so a listener and a quieter soul. At least this woman today. I don’t know what she was like 20 years ago. But today she’s a quieter woman but still very strong. That’s what I learned about her.
When did you first meet or speak with her in relation to this role?
I first met Ms. Walden Ford in December 2017 before we filmed. She was almost reluctant to really talk about herself. I remember we met in D.C., and we went to the African-American History Museum, the Smithsonian — and had a wonderful day walking back through time. You’re going past Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education and a number of our other iconic heroes whose memory has been captured in that space and really just reflecting on this idea. I remember us talking about these were people who, when they first began their mission, it wasn’t like the whole country or the world knew who they were. They were people like you and I who had an idea, spoke on it in a small forum that eventually became a larger forum.
Did she seem to have an awareness of her place in history, or was she more like, “Why are they making a movie about me?”
Kind of a mixture of both. You look at pictures and stills of her speaking before Congress, and not everybody in the world has done that, so there’s an awareness on that level. But I think there’s still that humility, and the activist in her is still very much mission-based and focused. The intention, ultimately, at the end of the day was trying to advance her child and the children in her community. I think she’s aware of what she did and what she was a part of, but I think she’s still very strongly rooted.
When it came to her portrayal, did she give you any pointers on speech, mannerisms etc., or did she let you interpret her as you saw fit?
She let me interpret her as I saw fit. Even though she holds space, I know that she is a quiet woman, and I did that work leading up to it. She struck me as a woman who was quiet but not afraid to speak when needed. So there would be points in our discussions and conversations where you could tell this was a moment in history, and her voice did get bigger and felt more full.
In the film, they touched upon her anxiety with public speaking, and at times it reminded me of Suzanne, your character from Orange Is The New Black. As such an accomplished actress, was there ever a time in your life where you had anxiety about speaking in public?
[Laughs]. Yes, every time I’ve been on an awards stage. Period. Full stop. Of course. I’m aware that I’m speaking in front of people, but it doesn’t paralyze me.
Was there anything in your formal education in Massachusetts that echoed in this film?
Not from an education stand point, but I’m the product of immigrants, and I definitely connected with her, I could see in her my own mother, the desire to afford every opportunity that this country could afford people. The real want and passion that her children have as many exposures as possible. My mom worked tirelessly and made endless compromises and sacrifices to give her kids the American dream.
You’re joined by an amazing cast. What was is like working Miles Fitch and Amirah Vann?
Miles is super talented, and we all know him and love him from This Is Us. And then I have to give big, big shouts to Amirah Vann. Amirah and I have been friends for years. We met doing workshops together in New York City when we were just trying to get into the business. Early days. I already knew that her talent was immense and what an incredible human she is. She’s the truth. It was cool to work together having that friendship in place and be able to use that shorthand with each other. So, in-between takes we were talking about life and what was happening with our friends.
It feels like history is unfolding daily, and sometimes it’s hard to understand what is happening in the moment. It feels like citizens are more involved in politics that affect them more than ever. Why do you think this movie is timely now?
I think the film is timely because it can serve to remind people that everyone can make a difference, no matter where your point of beginning is. You don’t have to head a massive charity organization to make a difference. You don’t have to be looking to make a global impact. Every single person can use their voice to make change. And this story helps us to understand that a mother’s love was all that Miss Walden Ford had, and that was enough.
Miss Virginia is available in select theaters and on VOD.