Searching for Answers in Ava DuVernay’s Film ‘Origin’

Henrene Taylor was born in Mississippi to a Black woman and a white man in 1942, during the Jim Crow era. Due to the times, she and her siblings would call him dad in private. But, in public, they’d have to call him by his last name to not arouse suspicion that these children were his. Henrene was very fair-skinned with brown curly hair. Yet she was no stranger to the discrimination of the South. Maybe that’s why she identified as Black and not mixed.

Henrene is my late mother. I constantly think about her. But, I find myself thinking about her even more after seeing Ava DuVernay’s film, Origin. The film is a dramatization that shows the international quest of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Isabel Wilkerson, to dig deeper into castes and race. She researches the discrimination against Black people in America, Nazi Germany, and India’s Caste system. The film is inspired by Isabel’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, written in 2020. In the film, Isabel is played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.

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Early on Isabel is reading Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class by social anthropologists Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary Gardner, 1941. There were several historical reenactments featured in this film. Some include the social anthropologists and authors of the book, Deep South where they had to meet in secret due to the Jim Crow’s laws.

Dramatizations of the 1933 Nazi book burning (of Jewish writers and intellectuals) in Berlin were also included. Over 25,000 books were burned by university students as they gave the Nazi salute in Germany.

But it was the reenactments of Trayvon Martin, the Black male teen who was harassed and fatally shot by George Zimmerman, that slapped me with emotion. The reason? It happened in my lifetime. While walking in an all-white community in Florida in 2012, George called 911 due to suspicion of Trayvon and murdered him. While the scenes involving Trayvon aren’t graphic, they are immensely haunting.

Why is everything racist, what does it even mean?

Isabel’s editor, Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood), sends her the 911 call and wants her to write a piece on the tragedy. She wonders “Why does a Latino man deputize himself to stalk a Black boy to protect an all-white community?” She asked a blunt question: “Why is everything racist, what does it even mean?“ Then, she embarks on her extensive research to try and find out.

The biopic also gives glimpses of Isabel’s personal life. She’s married to a white man, named Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal). Her mom, Ruby (Emily Yancy), was the widow of a Tuskegee Airman. Ruby thinks everything, and everyone, has their place in life. Isabel goes through some tragedies but perseveres despite her immense heartache.

This film is very sobering. It reminds me that some people still look at my race as a means to try and hold me down, dismiss me, or stigmatize me. Even in this century some people will wear their racism like a badge of honor.

An example comes to mind. I was on a road trip with my sister, coming from a family member’s funeral from Arkansas. We stopped somewhere in the South. I don’t remember if it was Mississippi or Alabama. But, I got out to stretch my legs and to use the washroom at a gas station. When I came out of the lady’s room I saw a white female cop casually talking to a guy. Once he told her that the washroom was free, she said “I don’t use the washroom behind them.” Frankly, I know some people would hate me because of my skin color. It still doesn’t make it less outrageous.

But I’m still privileged in some ways, despite systematic racism. I’m aware that my ancestors didn’t have the right to basic literacy, let alone a college education. Nor did they have the right to vote. I’m very fortunate to have both, among many other things.

However, I still think we’re all connected in the world. And where there is connection, there is compassion for one another. At least I like to think so.

This brings me to a scene in the film when Isabel interacts with a white male plumber in a red MAGA hat (Nick Offerman). He’s icy and not receptive. As they’re discussing a clogged sink he’s very dismissive. She remains cordial and inquisitive. She asks about his life. As he finds out they have something in common his demeanor softens, and he becomes more helpful.

The film isn’t only about racism. For example, India has a Caste system that doesn’t discriminate against race but by class. The Dalits, formally known as untouchables, are the lowest in their Caste system. One of the Dalits’ jobs is to clean human excrement from toilets and ditches. As Isabel (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) puts it, “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.”

Caste is underneath. All of the ‘isms.’ All of the ways in which we disregard one another.

In an NPR interview Ava says: “Caste is underneath. All of the ‘isms.’ All of the ways in which we disregard one another. It doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist. It means the foundation, the root, the origin underneath is the very simple premise. Someone has to be better than someone else.”

There’s an excerpt of Caste in The New Yorker written in an article in August 2020. It says: “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

We’re all different. That’s what makes us the same.

Sadly, I agree. But my mom always told me that “There is only one race, the human race.” As far as castes? She told me “We’re all different. That’s what makes us the same.” And, that’s something I’ll hang on to.

© Stephanie A. Taylor (1/31/24) — Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Listen to WNYC’s interview with Ava DuVernay.

Purchase tickets to Origin.

Purchase Isabel Wilkerson’s book.

Read August 2020 article of Isabel Wilkerson’s book.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Film still from ORIGIN (2023) directed by Ava DuVernay, starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson, with Jon Bernthal as her husband Brett Hamilton. Photo Credit: BFA / Neon / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2WDNA4Y

Middle Image: One-sheet poster for the film ORIGIN (2023) directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Photo Credit: BFA / Neon / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2WDNA7M

Bottom Photo: Director Ava DuVernay at the Venice International Film Festival for the premiere of ORIGIN.  Photo Credit: Daniele Cifala (9/6/23) / NurPhoto SRL / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2RR557M

Bonus Photo (below): Isabel Wilkerson at her home in Atlanta (GA) just before the publication of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Photo Credit: Erik Lesser (9/7/10) / ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: CACNX5


Tags: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Ava DuVernay, Black Women Filmmakers, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Dalit, Holocaust, Isabel Wilkerson, Jim Crow, Pulitzer Prize, Racism, Stephanie A. Taylor, The Warmth of Other Suns

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Stephanie A. Taylor is a multi-award-winning journalist whose accolades span three publications including FF2. Some of her favorite articles she's written are Emma Cooper’s ‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Lost Tapes, FACETS Honors Chaz Ebert F2F at Screen Gems 2022 Benefit, and Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’ Discusses Modern Day Problems. She currently lives in Chicago. Reading, writing, and watching old films are some of her many passions.
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