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Richard Brody, whose writing about movies runs under the rubric The Front Row, never ceases to surprise me, and enlighten me, with his critical judgment. Like another colleague, Anthony Lane, he has introduced me to the work of more classic filmmakers and films than I could possibly enumerate. I never quite know where Richard will land—and we don’t always agree. He still insists, for example, that Eddie Murphy’s “Norbit” deserves to be “hailed as a masterwork.” Let’s just say that we have discussed this more than once. More recently, and on an arguably higher plane, Richard took a swipe at the “thinly imagined inner lives” of the protagonists of “Oppenheimer” and “Maestro”—two movies I admired. The swipe came by way of praising Ava DuVernay’s latest film, “Origin,” which is a kind of bio-pic, too, centering on the journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson. Brody wrote, “It’s hard to recall a movie made for general audiences that takes ideas so seriously, that makes the pursuit of them appear so thrilling, or that is so replete with the intellectual substance of the protagonist’s endeavors.” This time, we were aligned.
In 2010, Wilkerson, a former reporter at the Times, published “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” It was rightly, and almost uniformly, praised both as a history of the epochal twentieth-century migration of Black Americans from the rural South to Northern cities across the country and as a feat of sheer storytelling. “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which was published in 2020, and formed the basis of DuVernay’s film, is a work of no less industry, elegance, and exploration, but its controversial thesis—that what unifies societies as seemingly disparate as India, Nazi Germany, and the Jim Crow South is not so much race as caste—is less narrative in its design.
“Caste,” in other words, is an intellectual exploration, a set of ideas, to wrestle with but not the conventional material for a feature film. What Brody gets right is that DuVernay’s decision to take the material of the book and add an essential narrative dimension—the author’s presence—is what makes it such an interesting film. In “Origin,” Wilkerson’s personality and sensibility are at the center of things—her personal losses, her family dynamic, her working life—and we grapple with the ideas as she does. I had admired two of DuVernay’s other works, in particular—“Selma,” a kind of Martin Luther King, Jr., bio-pic, and “When They See Us,” a series about five Harlem teen-agers falsely accused of a horrific attack on a jogger in Central Park—but “Origin” can only have been a tougher sell for studios. So much so that DuVernay turned to some unlikely sources for funding, particularly the Ford Foundation.
In December, DuVernay came around to talk about “Origin” for The New Yorker Radio Hour. Ordinarily, I’d never ask an author or an artist about a review, and I didn’t with DuVernay, but she brought up Brody’s review right away. It wasn’t just that she was pleased with good notice but that “he got it.”
Who knows whether “Origin” will get any Oscar love. Some Hollywood stars—Angelina Jolie, J. J. Abrams, Ben Affleck, Guillermo del Toro—have tried to give it a boost by hosting screenings, but it was shut out at the Golden Globes. On the night of the ceremony, the actor Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who plays Isabel Wilkerson, was handing out flyers promoting “Origin” near a movie theatre in L.A. Whatever. Awards are awards and no more. DuVernay’s “Origin” is a film well worth engaging. Take it from The Front Row.
Listen to the interview.
Isabel Wilkerson has written two astonishing books: “The Warmth of Other Suns”—which is about the Great Migration, and it’s filled with human stories about people coming from Mississippi to places like Chicago and Detroit, and that absolutely transformative moment in American history—and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which also has great humanity in it, and stories in it, but the theoretical is a very important thing. If I had put those two books in front of you and said, “Which one are you going to make a film out of?” I would have guessed the first every single time. Why do a film about “Caste”?
Well, when someone says there’s an unadaptable book out there, one wants to adapt that book! [Laughs.] No . . . I was drawn to “Caste.” I was drawn to the idea that there were these secret arcs of history that had a foundational connection that I didn’t know about. I felt like she unlocked a new language for me, personally, to discuss things that I think about often: the way that we treat each other, the way that our society is built, the systems and structures that we operate within. I’m just fascinated by that generally—and so to have a new set of tools, a new word, a new context in which to frame it all was exhilarating. I immediately started thinking about a narrative film.
I walked into that theatre not quite knowing what would happen because I thought, She’s making a film about someone I know a little bit, Isabel Wilkerson, who sat next to my wife at the New York Times—a very private person. A very private person who had great loss in her life around the time she was writing this book. She lost her husband and her mother. And that becomes the narrative driver of the film. It’s about her quest to write this book, her discovery of these ideas. Tell me about that decision-making and getting Isabel Wilkerson to agree to it.
She is a very private lady. I think that’s one of the most incredible things about this process for me, is that this woman was gracious enough, and generous enough, to understand that my way of sharing the information in her book was through her. I needed her to be a part of the telling of the film, so that she could be our catalyst, our tour guide. As I explained it to her, I saw it as her investigation into caste, her collecting evidence, her researching her book, and that I would follow her as she researched her book—and as she learned it, as she explored more deeply, the audience would as well.
Is that a decision that you made born out of inspiration or frustration or both? In other words, you’re faced with this book, and—just to summarize it extremely quickly—what it does is link Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, the Black experience in America, and the Indian system of caste, and particularly what used to be called the “untouchables,” the Dalits, and how those things are related. Her feeling, her idea—and it’s not born with her—is that race is secondary, that a caste system is primary. That’s what links these three experiences. Did you have a go at a script that didn’t have Isabel Wilkerson as the narrative driver originally, or were you always inspired to go right for the author?
There was maybe a week where I thought, Oh, I’m going to find characters in the book and I’ll do multiple storylines and watch these characters in these worlds, and they will intersect, but when I realized I don’t know enough about these characters, I don’t have the characters in her book, I would have to make up characters within the stories. Now I’m getting further and further away from the book. Then I started to read and look for other characters, and she—the author herself—lifted off of the page. The reason I don’t call the film “Caste” is because it’s not just the book “Caste”—it’s the life and work of Isabel Wilkerson. It is about this part of her life that she generously shared with me through almost two years of interviews. It was the book and then further research into the stories in the book that really fascinated me.
As I was watching the film, I was also thinking about “Selma” and trying to make sense of you in terms of your sense of purpose. You want to not only entertain and thrill but you also want to teach, instruct, and tell stories that you feel haven’t been told. What links “Selma” to the new film?
Well, I appreciate you saying that, just about entertainment, and—I don’t know if it’s instruction. I think it’s just sharing. Sharing what I learn and being excited. In “13th,” I’d just been studying the prison-industrial complex and criminalization, and I was learning about it, and I wanted people to know about it. In “Selma,” you had King. He is a hero. He is better than any Marvel superhero. It is constructed to be entertainment. And while I’m walking through and taking you through this time in history and the saga, it is constructed in a very traditional way to elicit the kind of big Hollywood entertainment and emotion. That’s what that film was meant to do. This breaks every screenwriting rule, every rule of filmmaking that I know.
How do you mean?
For the script alone—well, who’s the antagonist?
Right. The world.
Everybody. You and me. Right? It’s not a good pitch to the studios when they ask you, you know, “What’s it about?” “Caste.” “Who’s the antagonist?” “Uh, us?” [Laughs.] It’s just—the standard three-act structure, the intercutting, the moves from historical to contemporary to surreal images . . .
It’s also brutal. The depiction of concentration camps, the depiction of the Jim Crow South, and, finally, the depiction—maybe most novel of all, to an American audience—of the experience of the Dalits in India.
The manual scavengers.
You have a scene in which someone is cleaning public latrines with his body. To be impolite about it, he is immersed in human shit. There’s no metaphor there. That’s just straight up. It’s also tough.
Yes, it’s tough. And to position those images alongside images of a Black family reunion, sitting with a friend, telling stories, looking through old pictures, staring into the clouds with your mom, and talking about stories—the idea was to try to balance that personal memory, personal loss, personal trauma with our collective memory, our collective loss and trauma.
For better or for worse, you’re immersed in an expensive art, right?
It’s expensive. I want to go into sculpture. [Laughs.]
Then you’d have to buy the clay! But here, if you’re a novelist, you need a laptop or a pencil and paper and so on, and you have to make a living. As a filmmaker, you have to sell other people on your ability to not bankrupt the studio.
I want to ask about the experience of taking this idea, this story—with all your track record of success—from studio to studio. What were those conversations like, and what was the frustration like? Because it didn’t end in conventional success.
No, it didn’t. The good thing about it is that I didn’t go from studio to studio. I had an experience with one studio, a studio that I’ve worked with before, and have a nice relationship with, and they were just on a different timeline than I was.
What does that mean?
They wanted to make it next year. I wanted to make it this year. I shot this film in January and February [of 2023]. We débuted at Venice in September.
That’s pretty fast.
It’s a very fast turnaround.
I wanted it to be out this year.
Why? Because of the election?
Yes. I wanted it to be out this year. I want us to pay attention. When I say us—this whole country. I really feel like we are tired. We are exhausted, and it is hard to focus because there’s so much going on. We are overstimulated, and we have got to wake up and focus on what is happening. I want this film to contribute to that conversation . . . this transition of power that is to come, perhaps. We have to figure this out.
Again. Coming out next fall, it’s too late. While we had to take less money, while we had to have an independent distributor, while all of those things are true for this film, it was important for me to make those decisions so that it could be out now.
So, you just went to one studio—
I went to one studio.
—they said, “No, certainly not now.”
They wanted to make it, and we were going to make it. They just wanted to make it next year.
Fair enough. But you didn’t go to a second or a third studio?
I did not.
Well, because I would still be pitching.
I know. It’s not what they’re looking for. It’s not a business proposition that will work.
What do you think they are looking for from you at this point?
Oh, goodness. I don’t know what they think of when they see me coming. [Laughs.]
O.K., so that didn’t work at that—certainly not at that speed. Then you did something very unusual.
I picked up the phone, and I followed a hunch that I long had. I love PBS. For years, since I was a little girl, I would see at the end of PBS, “Paid for with the support of the Ford Foundation,” “with the support of such and such,” and MacArthur [Foundation], and all the things, and the man’s voice sounds so regal. I just thought, Wow, these people have got money, and they’re good docs! But they were all documentaries, and I always wondered if they would ever give to a narrative film. I had that idea for a couple of decades, so I picked up the phone and I called someone who would know.
Darren Walker at Ford.
Darren Walker at Ford.
And Darren Walker says to you—what? “We don’t do movies”? Or “That sounds great, let’s do it”?
How much money did you need to make the film?
We raised thirty-eight million.
What did the film cost?
Thirty-eight million. [Laughs.] I’m going to use what you give me. How about that?
Got you. Now, one of the distinguishing aspects of this film is that you have great performances in it by people that most moviegoers will not have heard of.
Yes. I love that.
Tell me about that.
Well, the reason that I was able to cast my very favorite actors—as directors, we say they’ve got chops; these people can go in the scenes—was because I was not with the studio, and so I did not have to hit marks. By having an independent budget, I was able to cast this remarkable woman, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.
Where did you find her? What were you seeing that just thrilled you?
Everything she’d done for the past twenty years. I’d worked with her on “When They See Us.” She was nominated for an Emmy for her part in that. The woman is just remarkable. “King Richard”: She was nominated for an Oscar for that. The work is just ongoingly superb. It’s electric. When she comes on the set—everything is just alive. And so I wanted to work with her again, and the independent budget allowed me the opportunity to not have to go by the studio lists but to go by the chops.
At what point do you think—there are a number of scenes, so I’m sort of wrestling with it—the penny drops for Isabel Wilkerson, and she sees that this conception of caste is the prism through which she wants to explore what you would call human cruelty, and systems of human cruelty? What scene would you pick out where she has that moment, intellectually or otherwise?
I married the scene to what Ms. Wilkerson told me. She told me that when she first started to think about the ideas of caste, and how they applied to contemporary life, was around the murder of Trayvon Martin and the verdict. And she has an incredible New York Times piece that was published around that time that really shares her interrogation of it. I won’t even say interrogation, because I don’t feel like she was fully excavating at that time. She was just starting to touch the idea and play with the idea, in my view. But it was that crime that instigated her in our movie.
There’s also a dinner that she’s having with some friends, and she’s kicking around this idea of caste. And, across the table, a very well-meaning woman says, “Now, wait a minute. I think it’s very different. The Nazi ideology was not about shades of difference or social levels—it was about elimination of the Jews in Germany and within the Nazi growing empire.” And Isabel Wilkerson is very offended by this. There’s a certain sense that it’s not just an argument—and we are meant to be with her, on her side in this argument, I think emotionally. Tell me about your thinking about that. Because when the book came out, that was part of the set of ideas that people were wrestling with, in good faith.
I don’t think that she’s offended by it in the scene. I think that she is confronted with opposition to her primary thesis at that point in the movie. She is following the idea that caste animates all of “-isms,” and she’s starting to make connections between Nazi Germany and the African American experience writ large. She encounters a woman who says, “These are not the same. The Holocaust was worse than American slavery.” So that is what the scene is about. In the scene, she is confronted with someone who is very knowledgeable about what she’s sharing, and very passionate about what she’s saying. And in that moment the character does not push back in anger or in opposition. She goes and researches it, and she starts to find how to justify what she feels, which is the fact that there’s a sameness to the construction. It’s not about the method by which these atrocities were undertaken; it’s the animating principle that allowed them to happen in the first place. There is a social hierarchy that determines power and status across continents, across cultures, and that can be called caste. If you’re Indian, you’re feeling it. If you’re in Nazi Germany, you’re feeling it. If you’re in the United States, you’re feeling it. If you’re in a room with equal numbers of men and women, someone in the room is on the bottom, and someone in the room is on the top based on our society, and on our social structure. That is the core of what she’s talking about in the book. The film is trying to help you visualize that and feel it emotionally and make those connections.
Watch the director break down a key scene from “Origin” in which she restaged a Nazi book burning from 1933.
Some of the discussion about the book when it came out was about the degree to which these systems are movable or not movable, reformable or not reformable, or erasable or not erasable. This is not the Obama view of the world—that we take two steps forward and one step back, and that there are all kinds of aspects to systemic racism that persist, but great progress has been made. You know, the liberal argument. I read it, both her book and your film, as maybe to some degree darker than that. That the persistence of these systems is stronger than we know.
Absolutely. We are existing within this concrete set of ideas. Yes, you can be hopeful about it, but ultimately we operate in the ways that the systems and the structures mandate that we operate. Until we are able to actually shift systems, our hopefulness, our bright outlook, our dreams can only go so far within systems that are built, that are perpetuated by these sets of ideas—a set of ideas that someone is on the top, someone is on the bottom, and it must be that way in order for a maintenance of power and status to occur. So, her theory—which at times I wasn’t sure I agreed with—gives us a framework to think about those systems and what it would take to change. At some point, hope needs to have a blueprint. It needs to have a game plan. In order to make a blueprint and a game plan, you need to know the rules of the game. This is part of the rules of the game, and it’s been somewhat hidden from us, I feel.
I wonder if you share a worry with me. I work at The New Yorker, and it has, broadly speaking, a certain politics, and it also has a certain audience. I sometimes worry—no matter how hard we work in our thinking, in our reporting, in our editing and writing, and all the rest—that it’s hard not to be preaching to the converted. That the people who come to these pieces will, in large measure, agree with their basic framework to begin with. Do you share a similar anxiety with your film? That the people who are going to click on your film or go to see your film will, more or less, not be the people you’re trying to change profoundly? Especially since you tell me that you want to get this out before the election—that tells me you want to play some role in changing minds.
I’m in a position now where I don’t feel that the people who are going to be watching this film are the people who don’t need it. My fear around the film is that—and I’m hearing this already—“Oh, I know what it is,” and “Oh, it’s made by a Black woman and stars a Black woman.” “Oh, this is a Black film. It doesn’t have anything to say to me. I got it.” I’m hearing that a lot.
From whom, and how?
In Hollywood, we have this award season where people in our industry get the film early before it’s in theatres. In just watching the early screenings and watching who’s engaging with the film on the screeners and the different early previews, we see a large number of people of color who are watching it, and who are engaging with it, and who are talking about it. And there feels to be some hesitation from people who are not of color.
In the summer of 2020, we had a racial reckoning, so they say. Everything changed, completely transformed—or is that just total nonsense? What changed in the movie business, and what didn’t?
There were a lot of wonderful sentiments shared. I think a lot of people talked about their dreams and their hopes for justice and equity. And I think a lot of people posted about it. [Laughs.]
You’re not describing a revolution. You’re describing—
There was a lot of that, which I think had its place. Unfortunately, it was defined as a racial reckoning, as a revolution in the way that our industry was going to work. That was not the definition of what was happening at the time. Many of us were aware of that. But I was surprised at how quickly things pivoted and swung back in the other direction.
And how do you feel that in the movie business?
You had this moment where folks were talking and feeling and striving and wanting to change. And that came straight up against the pandemic, which then backed into strikes, which is—in my view, the cascade of those events has left my industry in a very vulnerable place. But, for me, I look at it as a hopeful place. I see it as an opportunity because no one knows what the heck is going on! Whether you’re a streamer, whether you are a theatre, whether you are a filmmaker, whether you are crew, actors. We’re all flailing, trying to figure out what the next steps are for a healthy industry. And I think that is an opportunity for folks to come in with fresh ideas, and try to make new systems—not just exist within and act differently within the old system. We have to think about new ways to do it. That was one of the things we tried to tackle, with the way that we put this film together.
You talk about technology, and you said somewhere, Yes, I work extremely hard on the look of my film and how it’s going to look on a gigantic screen—and there’s unbelievable virtue to that, but you know damn well—
It’s going to end up on your phone.
It’s going to end up on a lot of people’s phones. And you’re O.K. with that.
Oh, I am.
Tell me about that.
I’d rather more people see it on a tiny screen than a few people see it on a big screen. I love the big screen, and I’m a diehard theatregoer, but I understand that if you want your message to be shared—and the films that I make, and certainly this film is one where I have a mission that I want to . . .
I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But your mission is above all not aesthetic? Are you saying that it’s more political, and about message, about changing us?
I’ll tell you that I care just as much about every frame of my film as Christopher Nolan cares about his.
No doubt. But to see it on a phone doesn’t bother you?
I care as much about every frame as he does, but I would sacrifice in a heartbeat all of the work that I put into the way the thing looks: every decision of every pillow, every flower, every move of the camera, my lighting, my sound—that Skywalker sound that I’ve worked on for three months!—the color grade . . . I would sacrifice it all for you to see the film, not get those aesthetic virtues, and hear what I’m trying to say rather than looking at the way that I’m saying it.
Like, watching “Selma” on a plane. If I looked at it just for aesthetics, it would break my heart, because it’s washed out and it looks like crap. But then I see people smiling or crying or feeling or watching with their eyes glued to the back of that seat. What would you choose?
It’s also a matter of economics and access. I would think that probably the income level of people who are getting to theatres on any consistent basis, and paying twenty-five bucks, is a lot lower than the number of people who have a Netflix account.
Absolutely. It’s very personal to me. I grew up in Compton. There’s no movie theatre in Compton.
What’s the nearest movie theatre?
We would go to the Lakewood mall, which was a bus ride—about an hour away, my aunt and I.
So, it was rare?
No, it was often! We took that bus ride once a week to see movies.
You screened the movie at the Venice Film Festival. During the festival, you said this: “For Black filmmakers, we’re told that people who love films in other parts of the world don’t care about our stories and don’t care about our films.” Tell me about that.
If you want to have a fun exercise, think of your favorite films made by Black directors starring Black folk, and go check and see how they were distributed worldwide. Usually, they’re not distributed around the world.
Because it’s considered parochial and it won’t do any business? What’s the thinking?
The myth is that Black films don’t work overseas. The message to Black filmmakers is, “Your films don’t work overseas. They will not come. They’re not interested. We cannot sell the film. We cannot market the film overseas.” We know that that’s not the case. They’re just not in that system. That international-distribution system is very difficult for Black filmmakers, for brown filmmakers. For filmmakers that are outside of the studio system, it’s difficult.
How do you break through?
I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out—and I’m going to. If there’s one last thing I do, I’m going to figure out how to move our films, and I’m going to start with my own films. I’ve learned distribution in the United States. I need to learn how to connect our work with people around the world. Right now, streamers are the solution. But if you’ve made an independent film, like I have, and you are doing it hand to hand on your own, we have to be able to find ways of connection. ♦