To capture the creativity it took to write ‘Caste,’ DuVernay pushed her own powers to a new level
Chief film critic
January 13, 2024 at 6:00 a.m. EST
But what was perhaps the most audacious portrayal of innovation is only now making its way to theaters on Jan. 19: “Origin,” Ava DuVernay’s sprawling, densely layered adaptation of former New York Times reporter Isabel Wilkerson’s bestseller “Caste,” not only dramatizes the journey of an author breaking open a new idea, but also takes bold artistic risks of its own in bringing what could be an arcane theoretical construct to shattering emotional life.
In October, DuVernay sat down before a screening of “Origin” at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville — where the movie would later win the audience award — to talk about “following the creative process, and the creative process it took to follow that creative process.” DuVernay recalls reading “Caste,” in which Wilkerson re-contextualized racism in terms of long-standing social stratification and taboos, and not understanding it at first. “It was hard for me to read,” DuVernay says. “The first time, I was resisting it, [thinking] it’s not right, and I don’t get it. And once I really got it, I thought, ‘This is language that we should have, the architecture of our oppressions that we should know.’ And, you know, ‘How can I use what I do to present it in a way that people will get?’”
Although DuVernay has made documentaries and other fact-based works before, including “13th,” about the criminal justice system, and the series “Colin in Black and White,” about Colin Kaepernick, she knew “Caste” demanded a different form. “I knew it wasn’t a doc,” she says. “And I knew it wasn’t a doc series. I knew I wanted it to be a narrative film, and I knew that I wanted to go in through [Isabel], because when I read the book, I did recognize, although she’s not a main character in the book, she mentions herself.” In one sequence, Wilkerson describes a physical violation on an airplane that went unaddressed, speculating what would have happened if she had been White; in another, she recounts having to jump through an insulting number of hoops to convince sources that, as an African American woman, she really was with the Times. “Those few glimpses made me think, ‘Wow, she’s the way through,’” DuVernay recalls. “That’s all I had. How to do that is a different story.”
The how involved an act of synthesis every bit as bold as Wilkerson’s book, which links American systems of anti-Black racism to the eugenic theories that propelled Nazism and the centuries-old caste system in India, where the Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables) occupy the lowest rung of the social and economic hierarchy. Wilkerson had also shared the loss of close family members on Facebook, which made DuVernay realize that she had written “Caste” while in the throes of grief. “Wrestling with these ideas in the midst of great tragedy and loss, how did she do it?” DuVernay asks. “What she made was just so complex, so revelatory, that I was interested in the two of those together. That creative act powered by loss, powered by passion, powered by that need to survive, something to hang on to.”
DuVernay spent a year and a half writing “Origin,” researching real-life characters from “Caste,” including anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis, who co-wrote “Deep South,” a groundbreaking study of caste and class in the America, and August Landmesser, whose resistance to the Nazi salute and marriage to a Jewish woman made him a target in 1930s Germany. Their storylines receive pride of place in “Origin,” as do Wilkerson’s extended family and the work of Dalit activist and scholar Suraj Yengde. Yengde appears in the film, as does a real-life Berlin librarian. DuVernay purposefully blurs the lines between fiction and documentary throughout the film, at one point using a background actor to “play” a witness to a soul-crushing act of racial exclusion at a segregated Ohio swimming pool in the 1950s.
The mix of storylines and styles, as well as a narrative that jumps from present-day America, Germany and India to 1930s Germany and Mississippi, results in a big, sometimes unwieldy but emotionally powerful exploration, not just of inequality as a social structure but also of its devastating existential effects. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who plays Wilkerson in the film, delivers a somber portrayal of a writer coming to grips with trauma by plunging into a daunting mental and physical task; as DuVernay says, representing that enterprise demanded making a movie that would be “something I haven’t done before, and maybe something I haven’t seen before.”
There are moments, listening to DuVernay talk about her approach to “Origin,” when the phrase “making a way out of no way” surfaces: the words often used to describe how African Americans have deployed resourcefulness and sheer imagination in the face of being continually dispossessed, disenfranchised and degraded. (As Barry Jenkins said when he made “The Underground Railroad” in 2021, Black survival itself might be the single greatest act of collective creativity in history.) Even out of trauma, something thrilling and transcendent can be born. There’s a vital connection, after all, that links reframing the world with rebuilding it anew.
Those same values — and the depiction of protagonists for whom creativity is a political act and politics are deeply creative — inform “Rustin,” in which musician, actor and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin dreams up and produces the March on Washington in 1963, and “American Fiction,” in which Jeffrey Wright plays the fictional author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who sets out to subvert the stereotyped assumptions and self-congratulatory pieties of the White publishing industry.
In many ways, these films address familiar themes in Hollywood, where stories centered on race have been in somewhat higher demand since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But they are being explored through the lens of Black genius, suggesting a more expansive, self-determining language that’s able to get at more nuanced truths.
“In a country where people are actively trying to write this stuff out of history — we have people trying to ban books about slavery and racism from children’s libraries, and we have this active campaign to soften this history — movies about oppression and movies about slavery are more important than ever, and I don’t want them to go away,” says “American Fiction’s” writer-director Cord Jefferson. “But what I’m interested in is the question of why we keep telling these stories over and over again to the exclusion of every other kind of story that you can tell.
“Yes, slavery is a part of Black American history,” Jefferson continues. “But so is being president of the United States, now. And between those two poles of slave and president, there exist millions of other stories about Black life that we could be telling.” Monk’s journey in “American Fiction,” including not just his own act of creation but the family and romantic life swirling around him, reflects a fullness that Jefferson believes has been missing in too many films about Black life in the past and present.
“It’s like, ‘We’re going to find a way to live a life that has joy in it and that has happiness in it, wherever we can find it,’” he explains. “I understand the intention and the well-meaning nature of people who make work that’s very, very serious about these things. … Where I’m coming from is, it’s very serious, and that’s exactly why we need to find humor and the ability to laugh at all of that. … It’s a disservice to all of the people who are going through this stuff not to acknowledge that we all laugh. We all find humor in this stuff.”
It could well be that Jefferson — who started his career as a journalist before writing for such acclaimed television shows as “Watchmen,” “The Good Place” and “Succession” — began making movies at the ideal moment to acknowledge those realities, arriving on the heels of the “Obama generation” of filmmakers that included Jenkins, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele and DuVernay. “Origin,” she says, marks a personal watershed that is also, inextricably, political. “You know, at the Venice screening, I was terrified,” she says, referring to “Origin’s” world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year. “I was really scared. And I was mad at myself for being scared. I wanted to be fearless. I felt fearless in the filmmaking, but when it got to the point of presenting it, I said, ‘You might have gone too far.’”
After a rapturous reception there, as well as at the Toronto International Film Festival and beyond, she’s reassured that the risks she took paid off. Still, she admits, she continues to get emotional remembering how it felt to defy her own comfort zones and tell the story the way she thought it could and should be told. Like Wilkerson in “Origin,” DuVernay emerged from the process transformed.
“I don’t have to do what they do,” she says she’s come to realize. “I don’t have to do it their way. If these guys, and White filmmakers from all over the world, can experiment and create new things, why can’t I do that?”