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Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson

'ORIGIN': Ava DeVernay's new film explores the global caste system and its dark influence

In 'ORIGIN', Ava DuVernay, the 'Selma' director adapts Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste', the best-selling study into how this hidden system has shaped our world - and how its rigid, arbitrary hierarchies still divide us today.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Isabel Wilkerson | Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima (Courtesy NEON)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a seminal work by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson that fundamentally challenges our attitudes to race and racism in America and beyond.

 Having topped the literary charts in the US in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election, the book took on a political significance as it brought the startling origins of inequality to light. Wilkerson's book presents racism in terms of caste, a system of social hierarchies that connects centuries of injustices, from American slavery and Jim Crow to the Holocaust and the Indian caste system.  

 The book was praised by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barrack Obama who called it 'profound and timely'. Now, ORIGIN, a new film by award-winning director Ava DuVernay, is bringing Wilkerson's ideas to the big screen. But how do you go about adapting an acclaimed work of investigative journalism into a narrative-driven feature film?


Isha Blaaker in 'ORIGIN'
Isha Blaaker, plays Allison Davis in 'ORIGIN' | Photo Credit: Paul Garnes (Courtesy NEON)

As DuVernay, the director of 2014’s Selma, explains in the film’s press notes: 'Within the pages that explore sociology, philosophy, and history, I saw Isabel. Her story. Her voice. I knew that the way to share the concepts and information in the book was to enter her world, her motivations, her losses, her triumphs.' 

ORIGIN follows Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she investigates the global phenomenon of caste and its dark influence. ‘I write answers’, states Wilkerson, early on and the film follows the writer as she makes sense of the global system of inequality and discrimination.

From the slave trade and Nazi Germany to the history of caste in India, the underlying structures that underpin this system of caste are exposed. ‘Why is everything racist?’ muses Wilkerson at one point, concluding that, ‘Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient.’ But ORIGIN is both an intellectual and a personal journey for Wilkerson who while writing the book is going through tremendous personal loss. As DuVernay explains in the notes: ‘The book wonderfully explains sociological concepts and philosophical theory. I was interested in how to extend Isabel’s explanations through the development of the human stories that she introduces’. 


Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and DuVernay onset during filming of 'ORIGIN'
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (left) and director Ava DuVernay (right) during filming of 'ORIGIN' | Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima (Courtesy NEON)

The film weaves together historical events touched on in Wilkerson’s book, introducing moments of dramatic tension and emotion that bring the concepts to life. By showcasing stories from different periods and countries, DuVernay shows how caste is such an ever-present force throughout history. This feeling was reinforced by DuVernay’s choice to shoot in 16mm motion-picture film. Speaking at the film’s London Gala screening, DuVernay explained, ‘I didn't want the different periods to look different. I wanted to communicate that through time and space, caste affects everyone. It's all the same grain, the same film and the same colour and I love the way that 16mm pulls it all together’.

One of the historical stories featured in the film is that of August, a German man, and Irma, a German-Jewish woman who fall hopelessly in love during the Nazi regime. While their doomed love affair adds pathos to the film, it illustrates the cruelty of a caste system that separates lovers. Another storyline follows Allison Davis, a black anthropologist who goes undercover to study segregation in Depression-era Mississippi. Here we see the realities of divided communities and the insidious nature of racism that Davis explored in his ground-breaking study Deep South.

Ava DuVernay on set in India
Director Ava DuVernay on set in India Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima (Courtesy NEON)

These stories depicted in the film show how caste systems are established, as in the case of Nazi Germany, and enforced, as in the scenes in Jim Crow-era America. But both these events are particularly linked in history. While in Berlin, researching her book, Wilkerson is surprised to discover that the Nazi regime took inspiration from America’s Jim Crow laws to draft their anti-Semitic legislation. 

When Wilkerson visits India to learn about the struggle of the Dalit (so-called ‘untouchables’), a historically marginalised group within Indian society, she learns about an influential Dalit, Dr Ambedkar. A renowned legal scholar, Ambedkar helped draft the Indian constitution. He had spent time in Harlem where he engaged with the American civil rights movement, corresponding with figures such as Dr W. E. B. Du Bois. The struggle of two marginalised groups from two different continents is inextricably connected. Indeed, Wilkerson learns that Martin Luther King was once introduced as a fellow ‘untouchable’ while on a speaking tour across India.

ORIGIN is a film based on a seemingly unfilmable book, an academic study into the roots of prejudice. While the film perfectly illustrates Wilkerson’s profound message, it imbues these complex ideas with an emotional punch. By bringing the focus onto individual stories, both the author’s and her subjects, the film reveals the interconnectedness of humanity regardless of time and place.

'ORIGIN' is released on 8 March.  'Caste: The Origin of Our Discontent' is published by Allen Lane