DuVernay Stunned By Revelations in Wilkerson’s “Caste” Book, Felt Compelled to Adapt It For Film
When acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay first read Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” she was stunned by the revelations about the insidious hierarchies that have influenced racism and oppression throughout history.
“It took me a really long time to wrap my mind around the idea that there’s something underneath racism that’s called caste,” says DuVernay. “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.”
Though DuVernay was warned that the complex ideas in “Caste” would be too difficult to adapt into a film, she felt compelled to try after multiple readings. Her new movie “Origin” brings Wilkerson’s groundbreaking concepts to life by focusing on Wilkerson herself, played by acclaimed actress Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as the author researches and writes the book. DuVernay describes it as “a film about a woman in pursuit of an idea.”
Film Opens With Portrayal of Trayvon Martin Killing, Seeks to Spark Dialogue
The movie opens with a dramatic recreation of the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. DuVernay says this tragedy was the catalyst for the ideas Wilkerson would later develop in “Caste.”
“I wanted to start where she started,” explains DuVernay on portraying the case that originally inspired Wilkerson’s thesis. By premiering the thought-provoking film in 2024, an election year, DuVernay hopes to contribute to America’s ongoing debate about racial inequities and the structures of power.
Nazi Germany Influenced By America’s Racial Hierarchies
One of the most shocking revelations from Wilkerson’s book that DuVernay includes in the film is how Nazi Germany actively studied and was influenced by America’s racial segregation and oppression of Black people.
“It’s fascinating to me that information about how Nazis had been influenced by the blueprints of the American South segregation policies was not more widely known,” says DuVernay. “When I’m reading the actual letters and documents showing this, it’s really astounding.”
Scenes depicting Nazi scholars taking notes on the oppressive Jim Crow laws, and even a Nazi book burning recreated on location in Berlin, connect this largely forgotten history to the modern dangers of authoritarianism and censorship.
Film Aims To Challenge Existing Ideas About Race in America
Through portraying both Wilkerson’s intellectual journey and personal struggles, DuVernay seeks to challenge prevailing notions of race relations and identity.
“I believe we need new language. We need to become fluent in concepts and constructs that we currently are not,” she explains. “It was very important that this film reach people while folks were considering the future of our country.”
Early reactions suggest the film is already succeeding in sparking difficult but vital conversations. There is no doubt “Origin,” with its bold ideas and emotional power, will leave a lasting impact on audiences. For DuVernay, finally bringing Wilkerson’s vital concepts to film has been worth any controversy.
“My hope is that we can somehow break caste,” she says simply.