June Butler explores Ava DuVernay’s biopic of journalist Isabel Wilkerson, Origin.

Ava DuVernay is a multi-award-winning filmmaker with an impressive array of accolades to her name, including two BAFTA awards, one in film and one for TV, a Primetime Emmy Award and two NAACP Image Awards (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). DuVernay did not turn her hand to directing until the age of 32, when, with a budget of only $6,000, she created a short film based on her own personal experience growing up as the daughter of a single mother. Titling the 2005 twelve-minute film Saturday Night Life, it narrated the tale of a woman and her three children, visiting a local discount grocery store in Los Angeles. After her feature film debut with I Will Follow (2010), DuVernay went on to win the U.S. Dramatic Competition directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second full-length film Middle of Nowhere, becoming the first African American woman to achieve such a prize. 

DuVernay’s foray into broadcasting was initially directed towards journalism, a decision prompted by an internship with CBS News. Her early ventures as ‘seeker-of-truth’, gave her a solid foothold when making Origin.  

Origin, the film, was based on a book originally written by Isabel Wilkerson. It was given the title of Caste-The Origins of Our Discontents, and intended as an anachronistic, definitive tome on the concept of racism and caste being a two-headed beast – Wilkerson held that both were part of a unified single ethos and related to much the same ultimate outcome. Racism and caste disenfranchised one group and forced them to become subordinate to another party who were considered (erroneously) to be better. According to Wilkerson, “Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial”. One set, the have-nots were enthralled to the people who had more – higher education, more money, better prospects. By decreeing these unspoken ‘rules’ as sacred and set in stone, it was easier to command absolute control over the prohibited group and bring them to obeisance without expending any serious energy to quell dissent. An excluded cluster of people, once they understand the system of rules they must abide by, will only need to be reminded of those rules from time to time – when those dicta become part of the dominant culture, then the subjugated faction will most likely accept and willingly comply because they simply have no other choice.   

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is casting perfection as Isabel Wilkerson – it just does not get any better. The role required someone who had an undeniable presence, but who also did not try to take away from the predominant impact of the piece. Ellis-Taylor is committed but deft in her connection to the part while conveying the overarching central theme of the film – which is that all humans, regardless, are created with equal worthiness. Jon Bernthal is an impressive supporting actor to Ellis-Taylor playing the part of Brett Hamilton, Wilkerson’s husband, with quiet authority. As tragedy strikes Isabel when her beloved partner Brett suddenly dies, followed by her mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) and then cousin Marion (Niecy Nash), DuVernay shoots some stunningly beautiful scenes that unfold in a dream sequence with slow-motion and silence. Far from the melee and tumult of day-to-day existence, Wilkerson goes into a hypnotic state, lying in a bed of autumn leaves gently tumbling from the skies, caressing the faces of her loved ones as they gaze at her for one last fleeting minute. It is all a fantasy of course but DuVernay cleverly captures the moment yet refrains from veering into the arena of mawkishness. 

In 2012, 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin was fatally shot while walking through a predominantly white neighbourhood in Sanford. Initially his assailant, George Zimmerman, cited the Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ law stating that Martin was acting in a suspicious manner and when challenged, became aggressive prompting Zimmerman to take increased measures in protecting his personal safety. In the months following the tragedy, Wilkerson was asked to comment on the shooting – she wondered if the killing had greater connection to bigotry than race with Isabel arguing that the untouchable caste in India formed part of the population and were not easily identified as such when compared one to another. Therefore, Wilkerson argued, the moniker of racism could not be applied to the Indian caste system because apart from minor differences in skin colour, the populace looked the same. She felt caste to be a more propelling factor in showcasing the apogee of bigotry and was the lynchpin upon which prejudice was formed. A radical difference in skin colour made identification easier. But the primary trait in creating a division was caste.  

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents was published in 2020. Origin, filmed in 2023 is faithful to the book, charting the most germane analogous sequences of fact-finding between placing the Nuremberg Laws under scrutiny to the inhumane treatment of the Dalits in India. In Nuremberg on 15 September 1935, two new laws were ratified by the Nazi Party – the first, was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour. The second, the Reich Citizenship Law, stated that only those of pure German or related blood, were eligible to be decreed Reich Citizens. Those outside these classifications were deemed to be solely state subjects without any citizenship rights. Wilkerson’s journey to India allowed her to view treatment of the Dalits who were also given the humiliating moniker of ‘Untouchables’. Condemned to perform the most menial of tasks and given no opportunity to raise themselves above a cycle of poverty and ignominy, they were obliged to wear a broom of twigs around their waists so that even their footsteps would be obliterated as they walked. If a member of a higher caste passed by, they were obliged to prostrate themselves so that not even their shadows would taint an adherent to a more exalted hierarchy. 

In drafting the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi Party looked at the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South and considered applying them to their own segregation decrees. Wilkerson goes on to assert however, the Nazis found the ‘one drop rule’ (by which an American man or woman who was considered to have even one drop of Negro blood in their veins, counted as black), too Draconian. This law, even for the brutal Nazis, was too harsh. 

Seamlessly chronicling from book to film is not an easy task – because the manuscript is non-fiction, DuVernay had the difficult job of remaining true to the script while also weaving a gripping saga with actors audiences related to, felt compelled to watch, and who did not steal scenes in favour of meaningful communication. Yet DuVernay has pulled it off with aplomb. Origin should be required viewing for everyone – its vital significance is one for worldwide audiences. 

Origin is in Irish cinemas from 8th March 2024



Write A Comment