Film

Ava DuVernay on Origin: 'I want it to be the kind of film you think about after you've left the theatre'

'How is this not taught in school?' DuVernay's remarkable new film shows how inequality is reproduced and entrenched around the world

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal in Ava DuVernay's film Origin

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal in Ava DuVernay's film Origin. Image: Atsushi Nishijima

Ava DuVernay’s new film Origin might just be the finest film of the year not to be nominated for an Oscar. A good shout could be made for Origin in the Best Picture category, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Best Actress, Jon Bernthal as Best Supporting Actor, plus Ava DuVernay for Best Director and Writing (Adapted Screenplay). But it will find its audience. Films this good always do.

DuVernay is currently one of the finest and most important filmmakers on the planet – with the rare ability to turn her hand to any style or genre. Her Oscar-winning 2014 drama Selma was a stirring depiction of Civil Rights era struggle; searing 2016 documentary 13th showed the incarceration of black Americans on a mass scale as a deliberate continuation of slavery era subjugation; 2018’s A Wrinkle In Time was a Disney film with a $100m budget, while When They See Us was a TV mini-series showing the systemic racism behind the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1989, and the impact on those young men’s lives. That’s real range. And powerful storytelling.

Duvernay’s latest film, Origin, is a creative take on Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, which showed how hierarchies of inequality and injustice are produced – from the Jim Crow laws in the US to the Holocaust and the Dalit ‘untouchables’ of India’s caste system. By expanding the frame to include the story of the author writing the book while enduring devastating loss, Origin tells a compelling personal story amid the big ideas and powerful arguments as Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) connects racism and injustice across time and place. 

Origin feels like a film that will change the way a lot of people think. Is that what the source material did for you?

Ava DuVernay: It did change the way I think. Isabel Wilkerson’s book gave me a new language for things I think about quite a bit – which is the way we see each other, the way we identify, the way we walk through the world, the way we treat one another. I’d never considered caste as part of that equation. It is not something that’s taught or even considered part of American history. So to make those connections and contemporise the idea of caste in a modern context as an African-American woman, and see how that affects us all regardless of our identity or nationality, became something that really preoccupied me. I wanted to talk to folks about it.

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A film about writing a book is quite a hard undertaking and a tough sell – how did you balance the quest element of Isabel’s writing journey with the intellectual heft of her ideas?

It made it easier to think about writing a movie about a woman on a journey. I’m not smart enough to write a movie about Caste. Making it about the character as opposed to about the subject matter allowed me to create a story that might be compelling and emotional, but also to let myself off the hook from writing a movie about a big anthropological theory.

How did you first come to Isabel Wilkerson’s book?

The book was being passed around and talked about in the summer of 2020. This is the first summer of the pandemic, the summer that George Floyd is murdered. So there was a lot of introspection, a lot of heightened emotion. So I read it with all those emotions swirling around and was compelled to share the ideas with others.

The book was almost bookended by racial violence – with the impetus to write the book coming from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case?

I never thought of it that way. The bookends of the two cases, the impetus for her writing it, a lot of that came from her reaction to the to the Trayvon Martin verdict and then it comes out the summer of George Floyd’s murder. The tragedy of that bookending is heartbreaking.

Are you hoping to change minds with this film – and did the process of making Origin change you?

The ideas in the book gave me new language for things I deal with socially and culturally. But the way it changed me was much more personal. To be able to organise my thoughts about myself, my place in the world, the way I see other people. And to challenge that notion of the way I see other people. To understand that in some rooms, I would be considered the dominant caste, in other rooms I’m considered a lower caste – it’s that constant negotiation. So many of us occupy these multiple identities, but do those identities really pinpoint who we are inside? These identities are shells, constructed by us and for us, and really inhibit us from getting to the core of ourselves and other people. That was deeply personal.

Did it change your way of working?

I went into the filmmaking with a new openness to applying the things I’ve learned to the filmmaking process. Whether it was the way we structured our production or ways in which I was interacting with different people or the depth of the exploration with actors. All of it kind of went into a stew and it was an extraordinary experience.

What was the exploration you undertook with the actors?

All the actors perform on a level that goes way beyond the surface. They had a beautiful, deep connection to the mission at hand, which was to bring these very muscular ideas to the public in a very accessible way. To do that, you have to know the detail of the idea. So everyone went to school, you know? And the most glorious example is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor – everything she’s saying, writing, reading in the film, she’s actually doing. She’s actually studying. And she brought all those layers to the work.

It’s frustrating her performance has not been acknowledged more widely in awards season…

Her performance will stand the test of time. The goal is for people to discover it and it’s such wonderful work that it’ll be around for a while.

Ava DuVernay directing her film Origin in India and Germany
Ava DuVernay directing new film Origin in India and Germany. Images: Atsushi Nishijima

The moment Isabel finds out the Nazis used US Jim Crow laws as a blueprint for the laws that created the Holocaust is shocking

When reading the book, I was astounded by it. And I was also angered. I was upset that I did not know it. How is this not taught in school? Why is this not a part of the American educational landscape – to understand the good, the bad, the ugly of the place where we live? The idea that the very protocols and processes and procedures of one of the greatest atrocities in human history were predicated on my country’s own history, specifically, victimising a group of people I am a part of – black folks – was startling. And it was something that really called to me to be amplified.

Are you on a quest that mirrors the one we see in the film? To share your learning in a way that is accessible, intelligent, entertaining?

When something grabs me and I want it to be known, I use the tools at my disposal to amplify them. So with 13th I was learning about mass criminalisation in the prison industrial complex and felt there was no real understanding of the political, cultural and social structures around incarceration. Same with Caste. We shot this film in 37 days on three continents. It spans seven time periods, across 400 years. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, or what time period it is. We put certain people above other people based on a set of random traits. It doesn’t have to be that way. But in order to untangle it, you have to be able to identify it and define it.

Did you have a deadline in mind – with it being election year in the US?

The election year was a big part of my thinking. Both elections in the United States but also internationally. There are 64 countries having an election this year – that represents almost half the global population. So there are a lot of decisions being made. The hope is that a contemplation of Caste might get people thinking about these things in ways we need right now.

What do you see as the power of film to change thinking?

Everything is a story. Whether it is what we tell each other about our society, our politics, our faiths, our place in the world, it’s all about stories. If you change stories, challenge stories, amplify certain stories, you can shift the way we think about ourselves and one another. That’s why movies are such a huge tool for narrative change. And narrative change can change the world.

What films have changed the way you view the world?

There are so many examples that have shifted the cultural zeitgeist. But a film called Sankofa by the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima completely up-ended what I had been taught in school about slavery, which was minimal and one-sided towards the dominant culture. So it allowed me to examine slavery as an experience of people who were enslaved and who resisted.

Do you see a thread through your work?

It’s a hard thing to do to make a film the way we make them, which is very all-consuming. So when the film is done, I want it to mean something and say something, I want it to stick to your ribs. And I want it to be the kind of film you think about after you’ve left the theatre. That doesn’t need to be a large historical or anthropological thesis, but is has to have meaning for me as the artist. So if that takes the form of a Disney movie like A Wrinkle In Time, a limited series, like When They See Us or a documentary like 13th, I stay open to where inspiration strikes.

Were there people whose work inspired you to take the leap into filmmaking?

There were filmmakers I respected. But it’s hard to say I want that person’s career when there’s no one doing it that looks like you. A black woman director with a thriving career who was able to choose projects she was compelled by and make those projects consistently at a certain level did not exist. Were there women who made films? Yes. But was there anyone with the career of a Sidney Lumet or a Mike Nichols or a Spielberg, Coppola or Lucas? No. There are incredible women who have made incredible films periodically but were unable to have the access and opportunity to make films consistently. That’s a new part of our history as African-American filmmakers. And something I hope other people can look up to and be inspired by.

Are you working with this next generation of filmmakers too?

I am. But I look at my counterparts making films who don’t have to have those concerns. Mr Nolan, Mr Villeneuve, Mr Chazelle – they don’t get that question. Because it is assumed that they don’t, or don’t need to. It’s not anything they have to speak to or have the additional labour of performing. But my answer is yes!

Origin is in cinemas now

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work, buy a copy!

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