'Selma' and 'A Wrinkle in Time; filmmaker Ava DuVernay returns with a sensitive, sincere and supremely smart biopic that's also an exploration of caste systems.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 04, 2024


For most filmmakers, Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents would've screamed for the documentary treatment. A non-fiction text published in 2020, it works through the thesis that racism in America isn't just the product of xenophobia, but is an example of social stratification. The journalist and author — and, in 1994, Pulitzer Prize-winner — examines how categorising populations into groups with a perceived grading is at the heart of US race relations, and how the same was true in Nazi Germany and still does in the treatment of the Dalit in India. A doco could spring easily from there. If it happens to in the future, no one should be surprised. Ava DuVernay, who brings Wilkerson's prize-winning tome to the screen now, has demonstrated again and again with Selma, The 13th and A Wrinkle in Time that she's not most directors, however.

Make the points in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents via a documentary, if and when that occurs, and they'd be accurate and powerful. Express them through cinema's function as an empathy machine, via personal tales including Wilkerson's own, and they resonate by getting audiences stepping into a range of shoes. Watching isn't merely investigating and learning in Origin, as Wilkerson as a character — played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (The Color Purple) in a phenomenally passionate and thoughtful lead performance — does in a movie that's also a biopic about her life and work. Sitting down to DuVernay's film is all about feeling, understanding what it's like to be a range of people who are forced to grapple with being seen as less than others for no reason but the fact that urge to judge that keeps proving inherent in human nature.

Accordingly, viewing Origin means walking in the footsteps of Black teenager Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost, All In) in the US in 2012, when he was shot by a Hispanic man solely for strolling in a white neighbourhood. It means spending time with Black nine-year-old Al Bright (Lennox Simms, Abbott Elementary), who wasn't permitted in a public pool with his white Little League teammates in the 50s. And, it means charting the efforts of Black anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Fear the Walking Dead's Isha Blaaker and Blindspotting's Jasmine Cephas Jones), who went undercover with white colleagues Burleigh and Mary Gardner (Doom Patrol's Matthew Zuk and Pain Hustlers' Hannah Pniewski) in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. Their work resulted in Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class — a book that now sports a forward by Wilkerson.

Following Origin's narrative also involves being immersed in the tale of a Jewish woman and German man, August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock, American Horror Story) and Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti, You), falling in love in the Third Reich. In a famous photograph from 1936, he's considered to be the lone person not saluting in a Nazi crowd. Origin plunges into reality for a group in India once dubbed "untouchables", too, a title given due to their place in the pecking order. It's a literal term, and one of exclusion and segregation — and it dictates what those deemed at the bottom of the Hindu caste ranks can and can't do and interact with. DuVernay weaves in everything beyond Wilkerson as recreations, making such tales far more tangible and pivotal than mere slices of the past — recent and not-so — providing examples for Caste.

In other words, it's one thing to know something or even witness it, and another to feel as if you're experiencing it yourself. That's DuVernay's approach — and it's in line with her focus on Wilkerson, getting Origin's audience empathising not only with everyone in its vignettes, but with her while she's sifting through this history. Sensitive, savvy, sincere, supremely smart: they all describe the way that this film, which its director penned and helmed, is built. DuVernay doesn't ever lose sight of Wilkerson, though, as she pursues her book amid several rounds of loss. Facing individual and societal heartbreak in tandem is also a thread in the feature. So are the echoes that the concept of caste has had on her mother Ruby (Emily Yancy, Sharp Objects), who has lived the reality of avoiding provoking backlash for simply existing — and also on Wilkerson's relationship with her doting husband Brett (Jon Bernthal, The Bear).

As a confidant, friend, much-needed support and sounding board, DuVernay includes Isabel's cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts, Never Have I Ever) into her retelling as well. That move gives the film and its protagonist a third tender relationship to navigate, and viewers to identify with. It's also another way that DuVernay expands her long-running push to explore the emotions simmering within Black women, and how they're influenced by the place that they're allowed in the world. Before Selma gave Coretta King prominence alongside her husband, and before A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay's last non-documentary picture prior to now, charted a Black teen's quest aided by astral travellers, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere also traversed this terrain. Indeed, the question with Origin isn't why its director took this path with the material — it's how could she have done anything else?

Is Origin ambitious? Bold? Unfailingly intelligent? Lensed with texture and intimacy by Matthew J Lloyd (Spider-Man: Far From Home)? Remarkably acted, especially by Ellis-Taylor, Bernthal and Nash-Betts? A film where feeling deeply is the only response? Does it take a route that no one else would've dreamed of contemplating with Wilkinson, her book, grief, power structures and subjugation? Is it a journey of one woman and of humanity in tandem? DuVernay's movie is all of these things — and it's a chronicle of the jumping-off points and discussions along the way to Caste coming to fruition, such as listening to the 911 call by George Zimmerman, who murdered Martin; having editors (The Nun II's Vera Farmiga and Harlan Coben's Shelter's Stephanie March) ask for her thoughts on it; her romance with Brett; caring for Ruby; chats with Marion; and even talking to a Make America Great Again hat-wearing plumber (Nick Offerman, Dumb Money). Yes, among all of the above, Origin is also a piece of cinema that only DuVernay could've made.


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