In Ava DuVernay’s latest film, Origin, which held its U.S. premiere at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on Friday, the filmmaker wrestles with a lot of big ideas. For the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker behind Selma, 13th and When They See Us, tackling big questions about race, class and history is nothing new — but for her latest feature, she admits she had to break a lot of established filmmaking rules to bring the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson to the screen.

Taking inspiration from Wilkerson’s acclaimed 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, DuVernay’s film is partly a portrait of Wilkerson — played in the film by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who recently earned a Gotham Award nom for her role in the film — as she embarks on an intellectual journey across time and place to connect how social hierarchies in distinctly different cultures across the globe  are connected, particularly in a way that gives context to racial inequity within the United States. While following Wilkerson on this quest, DuVernay also depicts real-life figures throughout history who had their own experiences with the beguiling concept of caste — among them Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost); Indian scholar and reformist B. R. Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania); African-American anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas Jones, respectively); and German citizen August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), the latter of which was depicted in a now-famous photograph refusing to give the Nazi salute.

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Also central to the film is Wilkerson’s own husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), to whom her book was dedicated for his ability to “defy caste.” Brett’s sudden death (and, soon thereafter, the death of Wilkerson’s mother) early in the film serve as the film’s emotional conflict — how can Wilkerson complete her project while grieving such profound losses? But that creative struggle proved to be a guiding light for DuVernay as she created the most experimental work of her career. 

“The breaking of the form was the joy of the journey, and it was one that came with a lot of fear,” DuVernay told THR ahead of the film’s premiere in Charlottesville, where she received the Virginia Film Festival Visionary Award. “I really equate the process I was going through with Isabel’s own process.”

The result is a staggering depiction of how the past and the present are nearly one in the same — serving as a wake-up call for our current era of conflicts both in the United States and abroad. As we travel across the globe with Wilkerson as she researches her book, trekking from the American South to Germany to India, DuVernay delivers a poignant and provocative narrative of how the social order is dependent on the subjugation and dehumanization of specific groups in order for those in power to maintain their control. 

Speaking with THR, DuVernay reveals why she knew the film needed to be a narrative feature rather than a documentary (despite pushback from executives who questioned how the film would work), her collaboration with Wilkerson to bring her personal life into the story and how history can be manipulated and distorted for political gain.

My first question is a pretty obvious one: What about Isabel Wilkerson’s book, from your perspective, could serve as the basis for a narrative feature? Why not tackle the material as a documentary? 

The book is full of love stories. She opens the book with August Landmesser, the man who wouldn’t [give the Nazi salute] because he was in love with a Jewish woman. [When I read that], as a filmmaker, I thought, “Who’s going to play him?” When I read about [Black anthropologists] Allison and Elizabeth Davis, I Googled them and saw how they were so debonair and beautiful. Who could play them? And then I started to place Isabel in the film — she writes about herself in the book, not a lot, maybe in a few places she mentions her own experience. I read the book three times before I decided to do this, and she grew for me each time. I researched a little about her and found out about the losses she had experienced, and I found out more when I spoke with her. There’s not a documentary that’s going to give you that — a real story with Isabel as the thread.

How willing and open was Isabel about you making her the center of this film? There’s so much rawness and tenderness in her experience with grief and loss as she embarks on this project.

She’s a very private woman who I respect, and I won’t put words in her mouth. I will say that my experience with her was one of great generosity. I don’t know if I could sit down and tell people stories about people I’ve lost in my life. It felt to me that she was doing it in service of a film that would talk about caste, and that that was important to her. That’s how I interpreted it, and she was very gracious in allowing me to interpret the story. She’s a storyteller as well, so she knows that when you listen to someone tell it, then you have to interpret it and shape it in a way that keeps people interested in what you’re trying to say. I connected with her. And her cousin Marion [played in the film by Niecy Nash-Betts] was not in the book. As she was telling me stories about Marion, I just fell in love with her. And I thought, “She sounds like Niecy, one of my best friends.”

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Neon’s Origin

Atshushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON

This is not really a question, but I wrote it down: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, exclamation point! I’ve been such a fan of her work, and seeing her in a lead performance was incredible. And I don’t think I’ve seen a Black female character like this. I’ve seen plenty of movies about men investigating big ideas, but this is a completely different perspective. And it’s all happening while she’s grieving the loss of her husband, Brett. Why was it so important to have him in the film?

I was fortunate to hear Isabel talk about Brett firsthand. The love is a palpable, living love for someone who may not be here in the physical form. I have such a reverence for what she went through, and the way she holds him and carries him with her. It was so important to try to find a way to communicate that he is still a source of support for her. That’s what I was trying to show in the film: Even when not physically present, the memory, the guidance, the connection is still very much there.

And their relationship is, of course, one of the nuggets that allows her to understand how caste can be be crossed or broken down.

Yeah, in her own home! Her dedication to him in the book is that he defied caste. So much of her understanding of it [comes] from a place of true intimacy — a heart matter. It’s not just a philosophical, social phenomenon that she’s studying and investigating. She’s coming to it because she knows it to be true. “How do I prove it? How do I learn more about it?” That creative journey, that intellectual journey … It moves me so much to hear you say you’ve not seen a Black woman character like this, because I agree that we do not see enough Black women thinking — women thinking — in film. For it to be just one singular character who is on an intellectual pursuit, I was trying to find [other films like] what I was looking to do. There came a time where I said, “I do not see this [anywhere], and I’m not gonna be able to compare it to anything else. I might be wrong, and it might not work. But kid, you’re gonna have to go do it.”

So much of the film is about questioning how we acknowledge our collective history — history that impacts so many different people in many different ways. I grew up here in Virginia, and I was taught an alternative history, let’s say — I remember having to write about the importance of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, essays that were assigned to us by our English teacher who was a Black woman. I think so much now about how must have she felt about that. At a time when the way we teach history is being policed, how important was it for you to follow Isabel as she makes her own interrogation into how history is told and who decides what that history actually is?

I’ve done historical work before, whether it be Selma, 13th or even contemporary history in When They See Us. I feel so often that that history is isolated — “It’s Black history. It’s really important to them, and it’s on the periphery of the main thing.” That’s how it’s often seen, right? One of the reasons why I was attracted to the project is there’s a lot of people involved in this one. We know all of history is interconnected. It all touches each other. If it hasn’t reached you yet, it’s going to — they’re gonna come knocking on your door at some point. What attracted me to this story is all the multiple touchpoints. zig-zagging through history across continents and cultures talking about the same phenomenon. Is there a way to put it together? You know that meme of the comedian, standing in front of a map and it has all these strings …

Yes! Charlie Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

That’s how my office looked. [Laughs.]. Me, being crazy, just trying to tell people! But it’s all these touch points. It’s an opportunity that I saw in the book, and what I tried to embrace in the film — using untraditional techniques to try to put it together, blurring the lines of documentary and [narrative]. Can we talk about these touch points, and can we animate this conversation to exist outside of the idea that “this LGBTQ history” or “this is women’s history” or “this is Black history.” The idea of “caste” enlarges it and allows everyone to touch it in some way.

I want to get your thoughts about entertainment as education. As a queer person, my most of knowledge of queer history came from watching films and TV. And as I get older, I tend to forget this — I can watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and roll my eyes a bit when there’s another lesson about Stonewall, but then I have to remember … 

It might be the first time someone’s hearing about it.

Exactly. And it’s a cultural history that’s not taught in schools. Was that part of the motivation for making this film, to expand audiences’ minds and shine a light on history that may have been swept under the rug?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, history is dangerous, and it can be used as a weapon on either side. It can be used as propaganda, it can be used as a tool of liberation — it just depends on who’s got control of it. And control is being wrested from spaces that are charged to be objective, to try to tell what really happened — I don’t know, something called the truth? But it’s blurry, and it’s slipping away, and it becomes more and more important to really seize and hold onto the spaces where we can still even speak. It’s not even about entertainment as education; it’s about [creating] a space where a dissenting voice can still be heard. And it needs to be recognized by those of us who have the ability to speak in that voice, to step into it a little bit.

This is really the time where it’s incumbent upon artists — we need to make things, we need to say the things. Yes, I want to laugh and I want to have a good time, but they’re actually taking books off shelves. They’re actually denying slavery, that there was any problem with it. There’s a severe and extreme gaslighting. It’s happened before, and if you trace history, you understand where this leads. “Oh, it’ll never get that bad.” In the film, Victoria Pedretti plays Irma Eckler, the Jewish woman [who falls in love with August Landmesser]. She’s in the bathroom at a nightclub, putting on her lipstick, hearing the other women saying [the Nazis] are taking people away. She says, “That’s never going to happen — that’s just a rumor.” 


Ava DuVernay on the set of Origin

Atshushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON

I wrote down the Primo Levi quote that Isabel sees when she travels to Berlin: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”

It will happen again. That’s all we’re trying to say. That’s the core and the key, to remind people of where we are right now and where we’ve been. We’re backsliding. I’m hoping this is a ringing bell of some kind. It’s a warning call, a call to action. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. Stop and looking what’s going on.  

In the third act of the film, you depict a lot of historical brutalities and dehumanization as Isabel writes that history in her book — enslaved Africans brutally transported across the ocean, the Dalit scavenging in the Indian sewers, Jewish prisoners arriving at a concentration camp. How important was it to confront the audience with those images? 

These times need to be confronted. My hope is that folks that might not have gone into see a movie that is centrally about Black history — or people that might not have gone to see a movie that was centrally about Jewish history, people that wouldn’t have gone in to see a movie about Indian history, people that wouldn’t have gone in to see a movie about a woman grieving … some combination of all of that — my hope is that they will walk out feeling confronted by not only history, but the reality of what’s currently happening. We call that juxtaposition “the trio”: Indian history, Jewish history, Black history, all colliding in this [montage] where you’re seeing man’s inhumanity. It’s to say: This is history, and this is how it affects the individual. And what should we do from here? What now? Early in the film, Isabel says, “I don’t write questions, I write answers.” But Ava? I don’t write answers, I write questions. The film for me is a giant question mark. The last line that Bryan Stevensen says at the end of 13th, “Now that you know, what will you do?” I think that’s the question I might be asking with all my work.

There’s a scene in which a party of white people have a picnic at a lynching, and they pose for a group photo with the body of a Black man in the background. Ever since I saw Christine Turner’s 2017 doc short Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day, which examined the phenomenon of white people treating those photographs as memorabilia, I’ve thought a lot about how images of Black pain and death have been used by both white supremacists and Black people throughout history. In recent years, the rise of citizen-filmed police brutality videos have depicted a truth that many people wished to ignore and not acknowledge. It’s almost as if that tool of white supremacy has been flipped on its head, in a way … 

You’re onto something. The power of the image has been used by Black folk for resistance. Emmitt Till’s mother declaring that she wanted that picture [of him in his casket] published by Jet magazine. Martin Luther King saying, “We need to agitate in a way that the news cameras will come and cover us as we march across the Selma bridge.” The videotape of Rodney King being beaten. For Black humanity to exist, it must be authenticated by picture and video, because would anyone have ever believed or cared about George Floyd otherwise? And yet, George Floyd exists all over this country [and will] for many, many decades, and centuries. The image of that lynching is so important. You look at something like Birth of a Nation, that’s what I mean when I say history is dangerous. The image can be distorted, or it can be used as a tool of liberation. 

From a writing perspective, how did you take all of the ideas in Isabel’s head and present them — and her creative pursuit — in a cinematic way? I think it does a great job of showing what it is to be a writer, how to muddle through your ideas and figure them out as you are writing. 

Oh, thank you for recognizing that. How did I do it? I had to actually free myself from the traditional form. I broke every screenwriting rule. I remember giving the script to some people who just were like, “What’s your act one break? What’s the midpoint? Where’s the villain?” But friends like Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, my cinematographer Matt Lloyd and my producing partner Paul Garnes were the four primary voices that were like, “It doesn’t matter. Just push through the form. You can do this.” In some ways I needed to hear friends give me permission. I remember an executive saying, “Who’s the antagonist?” And my answer was: “Everybody.” “Well, that’s not gonna work. You need a villain!” I had to give myself permission to write Isabel’s creative pursuit while pursuing my own in a way that’s outside of the box. 

I read a review that said, “This would probably have been better as a doc.” Wow. Well, how? Would these [historical scenes] be reenactments? Would I just interview Isabel and have her be a talking head? How would you know about the loss of her mother, and the hurting and personal trauma that runs alongside what she’s pursuing? Of course, 50 people can be cheering you on and you’re looking at the one guy who’s got his arms crossed. The messiness of it, the experimentation of it, the breaking of the form was the joy of the journey, and it was one that came with a lot of fear. I really equate the process I was going through with Isabel’s. The process of a Black woman in a creative pursuit? It hit close to home. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.