At first glance, Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestselling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, doesn’t seem adaptable to the big screen. Spanning different periods and geographies, one could perhaps imagine a documentary or something episodic coming out of it. But Ava DuVernay, the visionary Oscar-nominated director of films like Selma and 13th, always saw its feature possibilities. “I feel that the narrative form helps me convey emotion,” she says during a recent Zoom conversation on Origin, her monumental adaptation and expansion of Wilkerson’s text that is in the current awards conversations (and now playing in theaters). “What was really interesting to me is figuring out how to use the material and the anthropological thesis in Wilkerson’s book to generate empathy and [highlight] connections between people from different sides of the divides that we find ourselves in. And I don’t believe there’s any higher form of empathy machine than movies,” she says, quoting the late film critic Roger Ebert.
DuVernay does build a searing empathy machine throughout Origin, a film of big ideas that reframes the conversation around racism and the global caste systems by drawing examples out of several historical touch points, from the World War II-era Nazi Germany, to the Jim Crow South, to India, to the murdering of Trayvon Martin. Leading her adaptation is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, playing the brilliant and distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilkerson, while she navigates her grief around the losses of her mother, husband and cousin and writes her groundbreaking work. (The start-studded cast also includes Niecy Nash-Betts, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Nick Offerman and Victoria Pedretti.) While following Wilkerson’s journey, DuVernay traveled her own unknown path. “What defines an artist is stepping into the uncertainty,” she says. “You step bravely into the places that feel uncomfortable, and that’s where art comes from. The place where I don’t know if this is going to work, is where the treasure is.”
Below, DuVernay discusses how she pulled off such a complicated production independently, breaks down specific scenes of Origin and talks about how Walter Salles’ 1998 Oscar nominee Central Station continues to move and inspire her.
You intertwine ideas around love and grief, on personal, micro levels and throughout history—beautifully in Origin.
I was thinking about my overall goal, which was to paint a picture of what ‘caste’ means, not just in a social or cultural framework, but as a personal, intimate exploration within ourselves. People say that grief is love with nowhere to go, and I feel like that was a real guiding force for me to say, “If I want to explain this big, unruly, hard-to-understand topic called caste, how do I do that outside of a documentary framework? How do I do that outside of something that feels academic?”
The way to do it is to go inside and be intimate. That space where people have lost someone is a common space that behaves the same at its core for everyone. It might look different outwardly, but inside it’s a darkness and there’s vulnerability there. That’s the highest modality of love. As I’m trying to adapt the big historical pieces of the book, I’m also talking with Isabel Wilkerson herself as a woman and hearing her stories about her family, the losses of her husband and mother, her cousin, and braiding those with the larger, more conceptual topics.
How closely involved was Wilkerson? While it’s an adaptation of her book, you also expand on it in a lot of ways.
She was very hands off. She considers herself a storyteller and was very gracious in knowing that the process is best done freely, without someone over your shoulders. We did meet a couple of times. She shared her life with me, and then she gave it to me and allowed me to run with it and invited me to interpret it as I saw fit.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is incredible as Wilkerson. Recently, you shared something very emotional in your Instagram—a video of her handing out postcards to people to see Origin. What crossed your mind when you realized she did that?
It was wishing that she was in these exalted places with the fancy gowns, and that there was a spotlight on her performance in that way. And it was also a deep realization of the commitment of an artist to her work; to not wallow in what wasn’t, but to be present in what was, which was an opportunity to connect with people about the film in the here and now. To say, “I want to amplify this film. I want my performance to connect to people. I will go out and hand them something.” It is an extraordinary thing. It changed my perspective. I witnessed what she carried to make the performance. Of course I want to see her lauded. But she helped me understand that she didn’t necessarily need that in order to celebrate herself and to share the performance on her own.
That commitment also feels like a testament to the old-school independence you embraced in making Origin. What rules did you have to break to make something that feels so big, independently?
The main rule was to not go the easier route [with financing]. This wasn’t a situation where we were denied or where every studio in town said no. But this is one of those things where you would hear, “It took me seven years to get the movie made.” I just wasn’t willing to wait that long. There’s an urgency to this message in terms of encouraging a fluency and a literacy around these ideas: the idea of casteism and hierarchies and how we treat each other, and civility, dignity and erosion of the freedoms that so many of us have fought so hard for. This is the public conversation now, this year, and the rhetoric around the transition of power is going to ratchet it up.
So I needed it out now. The biggest challenge was to say, we will not wait for permission. We will go find like-minded organizations and individuals. We will have nonprofits finance a film that looks like a studio movie. But if the beating heart is independent, it’s a free expression. That made all the difference.
I want to talk about the book burning scene in Bebelplatz, Germany, where actual book burnings happened. It’s so powerful.
It speaks directly to the genius of my producing partner, Paul Garnes. We were two Black independent producers who decided to go out into the world and make this movie with no studio support or backup, and yet he walked us into Berlin, Germany, and we came out with that scene. This violence to democracy happened right on the same cobblestones where we stood and recreated it. We are flying the swastika in a nation in which that is illegal to do. We have a thousand extras dressed as Nazi soldiers Heil-ing, also illegal to do. We have a huge bonfire, real fire [laughs], and we’re throwing those books into it.
Another scene I want to mention is the Al Bright scene, the Black kid who was not permitted to use a swimming pool in 1951, whose story you tell so devastatingly. I believe the story is told by a background actor on the set who witnessed something similar in his lifetime.
One of the things that we tried to do on this film and just in general in my work, is make sure that everyone feels that they have a voice. If I use the language of this project, it’s trying to break caste, which is any kind of hierarchy. On a set, some people are allowed to speak and some people are not. Certainly the background actors are seen as the lowest on many sets. They’re just there for a day. They’re there to fill in the picture.
But I’ve always regarded them as the great colors in my palette to create stories. I had found myself talking to a background actor who was telling me about something that reminded him of the scene that we were about to do. I asked him if he would be able to tell me the story of this scene with the emotion of his memory. He said that he would try. So I sent him off into a far-away area to read the scene. He did it in one take. It goes to show that we should be listening and bringing in people who are traditionally uncentered. But also I think it speaks to just the magic and miracle of movie-making. If you stay open to the moment, beautiful things can come.
For the Freeze Frame column, you chose Central Station (1998, Walter Salles), specifically the final sequence where Isadora (Fernanda Montenegro) and Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira)—the little boy under her care for a while—are parting.
This is a film that touched me very deeply—a woman who does not have children, who after witnessing a tragic incident, tries to deliver a young boy who has lost his mother to his father. It’s this childless woman and this motherless boy, and [the bond] they form along the way. It’s a romance in the truest sense of where two hearts meet. It’s a love story between this duo, and it’s a road movie. It’s all of these things. In the end, their parting literally just breaks me every time. It’s very simply shot: it’s a close up of Montenegro’s face, and then you see the boy. Basically, it’s a cross-cutting. He’s running in hopes of catching her, and she’s riding a bus home, and we have the knowledge that he’ll never catch her. But at this point in the film, you are somehow praying for a miracle. You’re praying for the bus to stop, you’re praying for her to look back. You’re hoping against hope that these two will be together.
They pull out this little viewfinder that they have a memory of one another from deeper in the movie, and it just solidifies their connection. It’s just their facial expressions and these two shots, and they’re cross-cut in such a way that we are holding our breath. We are mourning, we are celebrating. It all plays on her face, the joy of this woman who had been this begrudging guardian of this boy. Along the way on the journey, she learned so much about herself. Her heart has expanded in a way that she’ll never be the same. And certainly he won’t.
When I think about a film that does all of the things that I hope my films will do, which is open up the heart, change your molecular structure in some way and think differently to embrace the best of humanity and dignity, that film did that for me. It also probably resonated because I don’t have children, and I could see myself wanting to help a kid that’s not mine. (But I probably would’ve been a little bit nicer about it [laughs].) There was a connection between that character and my own experience.
I love the gentle, tender nature of it. It is truly a simple, quiet movie about two people moving across the landscape. But it is as impactful as something huge and sweeping, like a Schindler’s List to me. This is the capacity of the human heart. It takes many forms, and there’s beauty there, even in the hardest of hearts.