We speak with award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay about her latest feature film, Origin, which explores discrimination in the United States and beyond through a dramatization of the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, whose process of writing the book is a central part of the film’s story. DuVernay, whose previous projects include Selma and 13th, says she was captivated by the ideas in the book after reading it in 2020 amid mass protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Isabel Wilkerson writes it in a beautiful way, but it is pretty dense material. And so my goal was to attach character into that so that there could be a deeper empathy,” DuVernay tells Democracy Now! “The film follows Isabel Wilkerson in her pursuit of truth as she writes the book.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
We spend the rest of the hour with award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay. She’s explored Black history in many of the movies she’s directed, from Selma to the documentary 13th, that explores race in the prison-industrial complex, to the miniseries When They See Us about the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five. She also directed Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Ava DuVernay’s new film is called Origin, takes viewers on a journey that explores racism, from the United States and the killing of Trayvon Martin to Dalits in India, used to be called the “untouchables,” to Nazi book burnings in Germany and the killings of Jews in the lead-up to World War II. It does so by dramatizing the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, as well as the process of writing the book. This is the trailer for Origin.
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] If you look closely, you’ll find something tragic was happening.
AMARI SELVAN: [played by Blair Underwood] Are you interested in writing something for us?
ISABEL WILKERSON: I don’t do assignments anymore.
AMARI SELVAN: Yeah, well, you’re a better writer than most people do anything. Have you heard the tapes?
ISABEL WILKERSON: No. Of what?
SEAN NOFFKE: Sanford Police Department. This is Sean.
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy, looks like he’s up to no good or something.
ISABEL WILKERSON: I want to be in the story, really inside the story, and build a thesis that shows how all of this is linked.
KATE: [played by Vera Farmiga] I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t understand. I don’t see it.
MARION WILKERSON: [played by Niecy Nash] You go and write your stories. Folks need to know about this.
SABINE: [played by Connie Nielsen] You’re trying to make sense of racism, but your thesis is flawed.
ISABEL WILKERSON: It was all lies. They knew we weren’t inferior.
You don’t escape trauma by ignoring it. You escape trauma by confronting it. I don’t write questions. I write answers.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Origin, which is in movie theaters now. It’s directed by the award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who I recently interviewed. I began by asking about her decision to make this a feature film instead of a documentary.
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, I read the book. It came out in 2020, about two months after the murder of George Floyd. So, Isabel Wilkerson publishes Caste. When I read it, I am captivated by the ideas. I had never put the idea of caste in a contemporary context, as it relates to African American history or, you know, American history in general, and certainly not in a contemporary context, as I put it against, you know, challenging current cases of criminal misconduct and the killing of Black people, as we see in the case of Trayvon Martin, which is discussed in the film. And so, these were all new ideas to me. I was really motivated to share them with folk in an accessible way.
So, all of my “aha” moments from reading the book are in the film, but I needed a main character to drive us through what is truly an anthropological thesis. I mean, Isabel Wilkerson writes it in a beautiful way, but it is pretty dense material. And so my goal was to attach character into that, so that there could be a deeper empathy and a following of a leading lady. And so, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, the film follows Isabel Wilkerson in her pursuit of truth as she writes the book. And along the way, you watch her overcome great personal challenge and also complete the book Caste.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go where you begin Origin, or on the issue that you begin Origin, featuring Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis.
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] Yeah, yeah. It’s a lot.
AMARI SELVAN: [played by Blair Underwood] Yeah?
ISABEL WILKERSON: It’s a lot. There’s a lot there, but longer-form stuff, questions that I don’t have the answer to.
AMARI SELVAN: So, ask them in the piece.
ISABEL WILKERSON: I don’t write questions. I write answers.
AMARI SELVAN: Questions like what?
ISABEL WILKERSON: Like, why does a Latino man deputize himself to stalk a Black boy to protect an all-white community? What is that?
AMARI SELVAN: The racist bias I want you to explore, excavate for the readers.
ISABEL WILKERSON: We call everything racism. What does it even mean anymore? It’s the default. When did that happen?
AMARI SELVAN: Hey, Brett.
BRETT HAMILTON: [played by Jon Bernthal] How are you?
AMARI SELVAN: All right. So, wait, so, you’re saying that he isn’t a racist?
ISABEL WILKERSON: No, I’m not saying that he’s not a racist. I’m questioning why is everything racist.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. And if you can go to why you decided to start with Trayvon Martin? And as you said, actually, you hear George Zimmerman’s voice.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. When I was interviewing Ms. Wilkerson about her process in writing the book, she had shared that the verdict of the case against George Zimmerman was a seminal moment in her curiosity and in her quest to put together the pieces and try to pursue this notion of caste and explaining it to folks. And so, I wanted to begin where she began.
In the film, you see it opens with a day in the life of a teenager named Trayvon, and you are walking with him as he is going about his business, talking to a friend on the phone, going to, you know, buy a snack. And those few minutes that you see him, before anything happens to him, before he is stalked and assaulted and killed, are moments to — constructed to humanize him and allow you to learn a little bit about him, outside of the context of what was done to him.
And that was important to me, in any rendering of challenge and trauma, to make sure that we are doing exactly what caste asks us not to do. Caste asks us not to humanize one another. But in the rendering of Trayvon Martin, we make sure that we open on just him, before anything else. And so, because that was the beginning of Isabel Wilkerson’s writing journey, part of the beginning of it, we began the film that way, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about why you decided to call the film not Caste, but Origin.
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. The film is not the book. The film is about the writing of the book, and it’s about the woman who wrote the book. You’re going to get some good pieces of the book, but it’s about the intellectual pursuit. It’s about the curiosity that leads us to knowledge. It’s about the interrogation of status and power. It’s about — it’s about obstacle. It’s about love. It’s about triumph over adversity. And it’s different than the book. You know, it’s about the life and work of this woman as she’s writing Caste. And so I didn’t want to call it Caste and have you see it and think, “Wait, what am I doing here inside of this marriage or inside of this relationship with Ruby Wilkerson, who was Isabel Wilkerson’s mother?” So, “origin” is a word in the subtitle of the book. The book is, as you know, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. And so, we stay true to the proximity between the two by using the same word.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Isabel herself. I interviewed her in 2020 after she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Warmth of Other Suns, when her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents came out.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book, Caste, you write about Bhimrao Ambedkar, the intellectual leader of India’s Dalit movement, what people call the “untouchable” movement. He wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1946, “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America,” he wrote. Can you talk about who he was in relation to Gandhi in India, and then W. E. B. Du Bois’s response?
ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, Gandhi was from a family that was an upper-caste — one of the upper castes. And so, he was the leader in the effort toward independence for the entire country of India and is known, obviously, for his nonviolent approach to achieving independence and to protesting.
Dr. Ambedkar was a leader of the Dalit movement. He was born into what was then known or called as one of the “untouchables,” one of the groups that was viewed as untouchable. And he went on to achieve great heights, and in his education, he actually attended Columbia University, and he got many advanced degrees. And then he returned to lead the movement toward, first of all, the Indian Constitution, but then also continuing to advocate on behalf of his people.
And he is one of the — is an example of how people in India, particularly those who had been assigned to the lowest caste, had been looking and aware of what was going on across the oceans, across continents, of what was going on here in the United States, and made common cause or recognized the common cause between the plight of the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” and of African Americans here in this country.
So, Dr. Ambedkar reached out to W. E. B. Du Bois, who was at that time, obviously, one of the leaders of African American intellect and thought and philosophy — reached out to him in recognition of the connections between the two peoples and the two countries in terms of the hierarchies. Both of them recognized that hierarchy, the infrastructure of our divisions, that a caste system was an appropriate term to look at how both peoples were being treated in their respective societies, though the countries are very, very different. They share — somewhat, they share in the ways of subordinating the very lowest-caste people in their countries.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Isabel Wilkerson talking about her book Caste when it first came out in 2020. And now we’re going to go to Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, talking about the Dalits of India.
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] Millennia ago, Dalits were called the untouchables of India and forced into the degrading work of manual scavenging, the practice of cleaning excrement from toilets and open drains by hand in exchange for leftover food. The only thing that they have to protect their bodies is oil, each other and their prayers. To refuse is to invite severe punishment or death. This persists to this day.
AMY GOODMAN: From Origin, Ava DuVernay’s film. Ava, talk about this journey that Isabel Wilkerson takes to India, also the crisis in her personal life, so deeply involved with her family, so close to her cousin, her mother, losing her family as she traveled.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. Well, the film chronicles the personal life of Isabel Wilkerson and some of the losses that she shared with me that she endured during the lead-up to writing the book. In a 16-month span, she lost her three family members and was still somehow able to anchor herself in her work and pull herself through — I won’t say “over,” because you never completely get over those losses, but through it to a place where she was able to use her creative output, her kind of intellectual energy, to stand in grief in a different way. And a part of that process was a visit to India, was one of several places she traveled around the world to research the book Caste.
I was also, you know, thrilled to have the pleasure to go to India and to shoot those scenes in Delhi, to speak with one of the same scholars that she spoke to, Dr. Suraj Yengde, who plays himself in the film. And he introduced me to a whole world of Dalit intellectuals and activists. The two men that you see kind of performing the act of manual scavenging are two actual men who are in that position in India to this day. They are two men who are associated with the advocacy group, and they generously agreed to, you know, do the work on camera. They were wonderful to work with. And just to give context to an American audience, the money that we gave them, that paid them to be performers in the film that day, was more than they make all year in that job. It’s not even a job. It’s an existence. And so, it was a profound experience, as described in the book, for Isabel Wilkerson, and certainly for me as a filmmaker, to be there.
AMY GOODMAN: And for Dr. King, as you point out.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, who went to India. Talk about that part of this connection between —
AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — the treatment of African Americans in the United States and what he discovered in India.
AVA DUVERNAY: He talked about his realization when he was there in India that he is a lower-class American citizen, and talks about the African American experience in context of caste. And it animates his thinking about the Black experience in new ways, which he wrote about and talked about extensively. I did the film Selma, didn’t know that. I have researched Dr. King extensively, knew he had visited India, knew that he had gone there, but never had read or heard about his — you know, what he took from it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you take us from the treatment of African Americans and the oppression of African Americans in the United States to the treatment of the Dalits, what was formally known as the untouchables, to what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany. And that’s where I want to go next, in this clip of Origin that features a scene when the character Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, addresses an audience about her book Caste.
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] On this day, he folded his arms rather than salute a regime that deemed that love illegal. On this day, he was brave. He couldn’t have been the only one who felt something tragic was happening. So why was he the only one among the men to not go along that day? Perhaps we can reflect on what it would mean to be him today. I’ll leave you with that. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip of Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, giving a speech about Caste, behind her a black-and-white footage of men and women in Germany putting up their hand in the “Heil Hitler” salute. Ava DuVernay, you’re talking there — or, I should say, Isabel is talking about August Landmesser. Tell us his story.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. August Landmesser is one of the first stories that the book Caste opens with. So, you know, if you’re reading it, in the first 15 minutes, you’re going to hit this story, which just captivated my imagination the first time I read it, and I had to delve deeper and really know what happened to him and what happened to his love, Irma. So, it’s the story of August and Irma. And they are both Germans. She’s Jewish. And he had registered as a member of the Nazi Party a couple of years before the moment of this very famous picture, which I know many people have seen. And so, in the film, we chronicle and show and share everything that I could find about what happened to them after that moment.
But in the book, Isabel talks about this moment of defiance and of resistance. And, you know, I like the words that we use in the film — “On this day, he was brave” — because, you know, none of us are brave all the time. But on that day, when it came down to standing up for what you truly believe, he would not “Heil Hitler.” He had someone at home who he loved who was Jewish, and he stood on those principles and didn’t go along with the status quo. And it’s a beautiful love story in the film, overall. And it really kind of exemplifies the humanity that Isabel shares in the book.
AMY GOODMAN: And you weave into this Elizabeth and Allison Davis, two Black anthropologists who co-wrote the groundbreaking book Deep South. We’re going to play a clip for a moment of book burnings in Germany and that place outside of Humboldt University, where you see, instead of cement in the plaza, just a square, where you look down, bright light, and you just see white empty shelves. This was Isabel Wilkerson when she took that journey, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.
NIGELLA: [played by Mieke Schymura] In Germany, there’s memorials to nearly everyone victimized by the Nazis. And there’s no entry sign, no. No gate. It’s just open —
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] Yes, it is.
NIGELLA: — both day and night, just standing to bear witness. Twenty thousand books were lost that night, books filled with imagination, ideas and history.
ERICH KÄSTNER: [played by Franz Hartwig] Leave here, my friends. Leave Germany. Go to your home as soon as you can. You will be safer there.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the extraordinary film Origin. Ava, introduce us to these authors who wrote this seminal work in the United States, and your discovery — Isabel Wilkerson’s discovery of the connection they had between the United States and Germany.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, yes. Well, it always moves me in that scene where he says, “You will be safer there.” Not true. Right? He’s sending them back home to the segregated South.
So, Allison and Elizabeth Davis were two anthropologists. In the film — excuse me, in the book, Isabel talks about the connection and the kindred feeling between Allison Davis’s work and her work. She regards him as a seminal figure in the development of her ideas around this work. And she talks primarily about research that they did in Natchez, Mississippi, for their book, Deep South. In the book, she mentions that they also had studied abroad. And when I dug deeper into that, I realized that they were actually there, had witnessed a book burning, and escaped Nazi Germany right as the rise of Hitler was reaching a crescendo. And so, I couldn’t believe that the two stories converged in that way.
And upon further research, we were able to, you know, really try to build out what those book burnings looked like, what they did, how they functioned. And so, what you just saw is the culmination of a sequence that digs into Allison and Elizabeth Davis in Germany as — you know, studying, and then coming across this burning of books in a place called Bebelplatz. And we shot in the exact square. Some of the scenes that you were — shots that you were seeing are exact recreations of photographs of that actual incident. So, it was a thrill to actually be there standing on the same cobblestone and rendering those images about two African American scholars who had to leave under the cover of night to get out of Germany under the Hitler — to avoid Hitler, and being an African American woman standing in that square, recreating those images freely — a big full circle moment.
But the book, Deep South, has been republished with a foreword by Isabel Wilkerson. And it tells the remarkable stories of caste that the Davises, as well as their colleagues, the Gardners, developed and share in the book about caste.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, that book is called Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. So, you deal in the United States, in India. You deal with Germany. And this goes to the issue of Isabel Wilkerson developing her thesis in the book Caste. I want to go to that scene when Isabel, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, is at a dinner party with fellow scholars discussing the thesis of Caste.
SABINE: [played by Connie Nielsen] Well, there are so many differences between here and there. We are talking about the systematic murder of 6 million Jews. That’s the official number. So, it’s just very different than monuments to soldiers and whatnot.
NATHAN: [played by Leonardo Nam] Well, what? What are you saying is different?
SABINE: Well, all of it. We’re talking about deliberate extermination, over many years.
NATHAN: Yeah, but wasn’t slavery for like hundreds of years? Right, Isabel?
ISABEL WILKERSON: [played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor] Slavery lasted 246 years. That’s 13 generations of people, plus another hundred years of Jim Crow, segregation, violence and murder.
SABINE: It is, of course, horrific. I am not downplaying any of it.
ISABEL WILKERSON: There were so many millions of African Americans who were murdered, from the Middle Passage until the end of legal segregation, that it goes beyond the realm of an official number. There is no number.
NATHAN: I didn’t know that.
ULRICH: [played by John Hans Tester] No. It’s stunning.
SABINE: It is. And I understand you’re trying to make sense of American racism. It is noble. But your thesis linking caste in Germany with the United States is flawed.
ULRICH: Yeah, maybe — maybe it’s not exactly the same, but the thesis of structural similarity certainly gives context for a framework.
SABINE: Right, but a framework is not a book, my friends. She is trying to connect the United States to Germany, but it doesn’t fit. It’s as if you’re trying to fit a square inside a circle, as they say. I would just like you to note for yourself that American slavery is rooted in subjugation, dominating Blacks for the purposes of capitalism, using bodies and labor for profit. But for the Jews during the Holocaust, the end goal was not subjugation. It was extermination. Kill them all. Wipe them off the face of the Earth. There is no need for them here. It’s different.
AMY GOODMAN: A scene from the extraordinary film Origin. Ava DuVernay, that was one of the longest clips you shared with us. Talk about why this is so central, and the kind of pushback that Isabel Wilkerson got as she developed this idea of Caste.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. Well, she shared with me, as she, you know, took these ideas around the world and talked with different scholars, different writers about it, that there were questions, and people had different points of view about caste, about the way that it works, and its connective tissue between cultures and communities. And so, you know, I think it’s all part of a conversation that I hope the film instigates. You know, I’ve said that the film is not — I’m not seeking agreement with all of the ideas, but I do feel that we should engage with ideas. And I think that far too often we’re in our corners and not engaging with one another about these things.
And so, as Isabel explained to me, you know, she did attend a dinner party where there was a difference of opinion, and intellectuals were talking and wrestling with ideas in this way. And that scene really propels her on a journey to prove the kinds of things that she’s trying to prove, to uncover what binds us together, as opposed to standing in our corners and saying that these things aren’t alike. And, you know, I feel that her quest to do that, and the book that came from it, was a great gift. You know, certainly, there are instances in the journey where there are obstacles, and people are saying, “I don’t agree with that.” But it doesn’t mean you don’t take the journey. And I think that’s one of the big things that I learned from her in making this film. And hopefully it comes across when you watch this scene and then the scenes that come after. This scene propels her forward with a new zest for actually, you know, proving her thesis.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you want to add, Ava, before we end?
AVA DUVERNAY: I would love to add that this picture is in the world in a way that is very independent. And I believe your audience embraces that.
AMY GOODMAN: And you made it in time for the 2024 election.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Does that have any meaning to you, the fact that it is out for this pivotal election year, some calling it perhaps the most important election ever?
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. I mean, this was intentional. It was important for me that the film be out this year. There were opportunities for us to make it with more money and with more bells and whistles, with studios’ involvement, but it wouldn’t have been out this year. You know, it is not a film made to make money for corporations. It’s a film made to ignite our imaginations and our curiosity and get us to lean in and figure out what we’re going to do next, because this is an essential time for action. And so, that’s our offering, and that’s our hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who explores Black history in many of her films, from Selma to 13th to the series When They See Us. Her new movie, Origin, is in theaters now, as Black History Month begins in the United States. It dramatizes the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Ava is the winner of the Emmy, BAFTA and Peabody Awards and an Academy Award nominee.
Democracy Now! has job openings. Go to democracynow.org for more information. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you so much.