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With 'Origin,' Ava DuVernay illuminates America's racial caste system

Ava DuVernay describes her new movie <em>Origin, </em>which is<em> </em>based on Isabel Wilkerson's book<em> Caste, </em>as "a film about a woman in pursuit of an idea."
Emma McIntyre
Getty Images for Academy Museum
Ava DuVernay describes her new movie Origin, which is based on Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste, as "a film about a woman in pursuit of an idea."

When filmmaker Ava DuVernay first read Isabel Wilkerson's 2020 book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, she was so stunned, she reread it twice. The bestselling book draws a line between India's caste system, the hierarchies of Nazi Germany and the historic subjugation of Black people in the United States.

"It took me a really long time to wrap my mind around the idea that there's something underneath racism that's called caste," DuVernay says. "It doesn't mean racism doesn't exist. It means the foundation, the root, the origin, underneath is the very simple premise — someone has to be better than someone else."

DuVernay was warned that Caste was too complex to adapt into a film but with each reading she felt a story emerge more clearly. Her new movie, Origin, centers on Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she explores how understanding the caste system can deepen our understanding of what Black people experience in America. DuVernay describes it as "a film about a woman in pursuit of an idea."

The movie opens with a portrayal of the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martinat the hands of George Zimmerman. DuVernay says Wilkerson cited Zimmerman's acquittal as the impetus behind the ideas she would write about in Caste.

"I remember when [Wilkerson] was sharing that with me, I thought, 'Oh, wow, could [the film] open on that? Could the spark that sparked her spark the film?'" DuVernay says. "Trying to stay close to and honor her process, her life, her genius — I wanted to start where she started."

DuVernay's previous films include the historical drama Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and 13th, an Oscar-nominated documentary about mass incarceration. Her 2019 Netflix drama series, When They See Us, tells the story of the five young men who were falsely convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case.

DuVernay hopes that by releasing Origin in 2024 — an election year — the film will contribute to the country's ongoing conversation about race and power.

"In order to do that, I believe we need new language. We need to become fluent in concepts and constructs that we currently are not," she says. "And so it was very important to me that this film be made ... and that it reached people while folks were considering the future of our country."

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays <em>Caste</em> author Isabel Wilkerson in <em>Origin</em>.
Atsushi Nishijima / Neon
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Caste author Isabel Wilkerson in Origin.

Interview highlights

On reading Caste, and learning how Nazis were influenced and inspired by American racism

I'm an African American studies major, English major, UCLA. Read quite a bit – had not come across that bit of information that Nazis had been influenced by the blueprints of the American South segregation policies. That actually they had sent scholars and people to study it, to bring it back. So when I read it in her book, it was fascinating to me. But I had to go look at that stuff myself and read it myself.

All of the parts in the book where my jaw dropped, I put that in the movie.

It's not widely known. And so there's certainly scholarship out there other than Isabel Wilkerson's that shares that information, but none that I'd ever heard of. So when I'm sitting there and I'm reading the actual notes, the actual transcriptions, the actual letters, it's astounding. It's very matter of fact. And in some spaces, the Germans are shocked and surprised and appalled by some of the things that were done in America and said, "That's taking it a little too far." ... Really shocking. But certainly that's a part of the book, and this is what I basically did is, all of the parts in the book where my jaw dropped, I put that in the movie.

The book burning scene in <em>Origin</em> was filmed in a square in Berlin in which the Nazis burned books in 1933.<strong> </strong>
Atsushi Nishijima / Neon
The book burning scene in Origin was filmed in a square in Berlin in which the Nazis burned books in 1933.

On filming a Nazi book burning scene in Germany

This was one of the sequences that I'm the most proud of. This film was made completely outside of the studio system. So it was made independently. And it was made by a small Black-woman-owned, Black-people-run company. It was me and my producing partner, Paul Garnes, and that was it. ... And we found ourselves as two African American independent producers in Germany asking the city of Berlin to allow us to photograph and film a recreation of a book burning on the actual site where it happened. That was our request. And we got a "yes."

So we shot this scene on Bebelplatz, and this is a square in which there is an actual monument to this book burning. And the monument is called the Empty Library, where you can look down into the ground. There's a hole in the ground, a square in the ground, where you look down into rows and rows of white empty bookshelves to commemorate and symbolize the books that were burned. And so we recreated the whole book burning on that plaza, to stand there on that cobblestone and to know that that had happened in that place and that I was able to, with my comrades, tell the story to a modern audience so that that moment is not forgotten, and that moment is connected to experiences that we are having right now where we are — wherever in the world you are — the idea that ideas and imagination is at risk, the idea that books are dangerous, the idea that we can forget about our past lives by just taking them off the shelves.

On filming a scene in India with a Dalit man whose job requires him to remove human waste from public latrines by hand

This scene was one that was shocking to me, and learning about the fact that there are people to this day whose profession is that of manual scavenging. ... I wanted to show and share what that looks like and what it takes for a human being to be required — expected — to degrade themselves to perform that service, just to eat, just to exist. ...

And with these particular men, I wanted to find people who actually did that job. So what you are watching are men – that is what they do. That is how they live. And so I went to an advocacy group, and they had two men who were willing to perform the act on camera. ... And of course, I'm not having any human being get in excrement. We created what was needed for the scene with oatmeal and food coloring. ... I came to them and they came over to the set area and through a translator, I was describing what it was, and the man ... looked at me and he said through the translator, "I think we should do it for real." And his point was, people must know what is happening. Will this look real? They have to know. They need to see the truth, is what he was saying. And I promised him. And so it took a little convincing to have him go into the safe set.

On changing hierarchical language on the film set

[My cinematographer, Matt Lloyd, pointed out] when [you] look at a film set and a crew, there's a hierarchy embedded in the very names in which we call each other by our titles, by our position titles. And we have A-cam and we have a B-cam ... we have basically junior people and they're all called these things. So as they come to the table, they're already defined and they're already told at that circular table who's important. And so we try to break those down. And [our cinematographer] did an incredible job in his department of renaming everything. There was no first camera and second camera. There was an "east camera" and a "west camera." And there were lots of little ways that we just tried to address and play with and push against this idea of caste, simply in the idea of how do we organize ourselves.

On awards season and if she cares about winning

There's not a screening that I have for this film and a Q&A that I have for this film where someone does not walk up to me, lock eyes with me, touch my hand and tell me what it meant. Tell me what they got from it. Tell me what the hell they felt like. Nothing else matters.

I'm grappling with my own shame in the wanting, and I'm disappointed in myself that I am feeling that the film is not achieving those industry benchmarks. It is happening because of forces outside of my control. ... It's somewhat alarming to me ... that it has hurt and it has surprised me how much I am hurt by the fact that Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is not being recognized for that work. It breaks my heart. I feel that she should have every flower. This is how I feel for David Oyelowoand Selma. I felt like, what? Why? And as I've moved through the industry, I understand the why, but it doesn't make it any [easier]. And so it really makes me lean more into the independence, more into, 'What matters, Ava?' What matters is there's not a screening that I have for this film and a Q&A that I have for this film where someone does not walk up to me, lock eyes with me, touch my hand and tell me what it meant. Tell me what they got from it. Tell me what the hell they felt like. Nothing else matters.

On being a Black woman, and rising outside of her caste because of professional success

Having read the book many times, studied the book, made the film about the book, my understanding of it is this: While you and I may be sitting here and we might be successful in our careers, what it has taken for us to be in these spaces is a different trajectory than what has taken what our white male counterparts have gone through to be in their spaces. In addition to that, outside of this space, when we're walking down the street, where we're in the department store, when we're in various spaces where our scholarship or careers or intellect is unknown, and we are seen only by our outward facing traits — it doesn't matter, and we are not on the same footing. And that's the way this society functions. And so that's part of what her book, I believe, asked me as a reader to think about, is to really drill down into it and not allow ideas about it to kind of sit inside of soundbites and easy questions. But this is really insidious stuff that affects us all. And it's an invitation to address it, explore it, think about it.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.