Ava DuVernay Wants to Build a New System

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.

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.

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