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Ava DuVernay addresses the root causes of racism in her latest movie 'Origin'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For her new film, Ava DuVernay tackled an almost impossible book to adapt, one that spans the globe across centuries. In 2020, Isabel Wilkerson published "Caste," a treatise on racism in the United States and how it ties into other countries where skin color doesn't determine the social hierarchy, but still caste systems exist. Here's how Wilkerson summed it up on WHYY's Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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ISABEL WILKERSON: I think of caste as the bones and race as the skin that allows us to see that race is merely the signal and cue to where one fits in the caste system.

MARTÍNEZ: In the new film "Origin," Ava DuVernay focuses on Isabel Wilkerson's research, the steps she took to come to this realization. The movie comes across almost like a crime investigation, which it basically is. It begins with the final day in the life of Trayvon Martin.

AVA DUVERNAY: So you see him in the time before he's stalked, assaulted and killed by George Zimmerman. And a part of what showing that does is it humanizes him, and it starts to break open this idea of why he was stalked. He is not put in this category of Black boy with hoodie looking suspicious in the neighborhood who can be assaulted and we look the other way. He is a kid talking to his friend on the phone, buying Skittles. And I think that's really what Isabel is wrestling with, is the way in which he saw himself and what he was actually doing, and the way in which he was seen by someone who ascribed a certain caste to him - that he was not worthy of being there, that he was suspicious - who criminalized him because of the color of his skin and what he was wearing.

MARTÍNEZ: In a scene where Isabel Wilkerson's editor asked her to write a piece about Trayvon Martin and the racism behind his killing, she pushes back. Let's hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ORIGIN")

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AUNJANUE ELLIS-TAYLOR: (As Isabel) I don't write questions, I write answers.

BLAIR UNDERWOOD: (As Amari) Questions like what?

ELLIS-TAYLOR: (As Isabel) Like why does a Latino man deputize himself to stalk a Black boy to protect an all-white community? What is that?

UNDERWOOD: (As Amari) The racist bias I want you to explore, excavate for the readers.

ELLIS-TAYLOR: (As Isabel) We call everything racism. What does it even mean anymore? It's the default.

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UNDERWOOD: (As Amari) So, wait, so you're saying that he isn't a racist?

ELLIS-TAYLOR: (As Isabel) No, I'm not saying that he's not a racist. I'm questioning, why is everything racist?

DUVERNAY: And so the idea that Isabel Wilkerson shared with me in our interviews was that this question of - why did that happen? - because it's not quite racism. It fits into another space that we have to excavate to, to get to the root of. And she believes that that root is caste, this organizing people into a hierarchy.

MARTÍNEZ: So in your movie, Ava, Wilkerson goes to Germany and India, where visual cues such as skin color weren't used for their caste system. So tell us about what she found in those countries and how they relate back to the U.S.

DUVERNAY: We find her go to Berlin to wrestle with the history there of the Holocaust. And she finds the blueprints that the execution of that horror are built upon were derived from American segregation laws and the subjugation of African Americans, that Nazi lawyers were actually sent to the United States to study those laws and rules. And social mores were brought back and integrated into Nazi protocols.

We go to India with the character of Isabel as she researches and talks to Dalit scholars, you know? Dalits, known by many around the world as the term untouchables, folks that are the lowest of the low caste in India in the ways in which, even to this day, they are subjugated, terrorized, you know, regarded as less than human in many instances. And so through her travels, she is able to relate these both contemporary and historical analyses back to the African American condition in the United States.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Isabel's investigation was moved forward in part by her own grief. She experienced, I mean, some really, really rough losses throughout her research process. I mean, why did you choose to keep these personal parts of Isabel's story in the movie?

DUVERNAY: That came from two years of her graciousness and her generosity in sharing her stories with me, and adding that to some of the big aha moments that I had in the book, adding in some research that kind of extended some of the ideas in the book into the visual space, and putting that all together in a stew that's a mix of historical drama, contemporary drama. There's surrealism there. Some people say they see a documentary in there. It's really trying to break the different rules that we're told to follow when we make films, because all I care about is the end result, the emotion...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

DUVERNAY: ...The connection to this idea. And we tried some different methods to achieve that.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you didn't have studio backing to make this film. I mean, how were you able to do it?

DUVERNAY: Yeah, we went a different route. You know, instead of spending two years or three years riding around all of the studios asking them - hey, you want to make a movie about caste? - which isn't the hot list of topics to explore in Hollywood. We just decided to go a different way and really look to like-minded organizations and individuals to hold hands with us. So we were able to put together enough money to make this film in 37 days on three continents, and to do it our way without studio oversight, without someone saying, oh, that's a bit too controversial - don't say that, don't show this. These folks gave us the freedom to express ourselves in the way that we needed.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, your films give people a lot to think about. I wonder, do you ever want to do something - I don't know - like, a comedy or something maybe you've been dying to do, but maybe you feel like, I don't know if people expect that out of me?

DUVERNAY: Oh, it's so interesting. I hear that question and the first person that popped into my head is Chris Nolan. I don't know if he's ever gotten the question, hey, Chris, do you ever just want to do a comedy?

MARTÍNEZ: I would have asked him.

DUVERNAY: Oh, you would? OK.

MARTÍNEZ: If he'd have talked to me, Ava, I would have asked him. Yep.

DUVERNAY: Well, I need to get him on with you so I can hear his answer. But no...

MARTÍNEZ: He would have - he probably would have hung up on me.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: But I'm glad you haven't hung up yet.

DUVERNAY: I'm not going to hang up on you, no. I make what I want to make. And if I decide I want to make a comedy, I'll do that. But it's a process. It is a comprehensive, deeply rooted, very intimate process making these films. And for me, you know, my choice is that they matter. You know, some folks make films to make people laugh and entertain, and it's important. For me, I choose to make films that I hope stick to your ribs after you've seen them, a little bit of soul food that maybe get into your bloodstream, that stay in your mind and in your heart and perhaps even change the way that you see the world.

MARTÍNEZ: That's writer and director Ava DuVernay. Her new film is called "Origin." It's getting nationwide release this week. And, Ava, thanks a lot for spending time with me.

DUVERNAY: I loved talking to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BLUE IN GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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