Ava DuVernay’s industry colleagues—like Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg—kept asking her about Caste. They all assumed DuVernay would have been one of the first to read Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, an eye-opening examination of American racism as a caste system. Like some of her influential colleagues, she had received the galley of the book early, but hadn’t read it yet. It wasn’t until September of 2020 that DuVernay actually sat down with it, and she finally understood why people kept bringing it up to her. “After you read it, you want to talk about it, and you want to ask questions, and you want to dive deeper,” she says.
DuVernay did indeed dig deeper, especially after Wilkerson’s own life story offered a way to adapt Caste into a film, which follows the writer in the grips of personal tragedy, embarking on a world-shifting investigation into the systems of oppression around the world.
As a writer-director, DuVernay had adapted powerful, true stories for the screen with much success, with 2014’s Oscar-nominated drama Selma and 2019’s Emmy-nominated series When They See Us, but her adaptation of Caste, titled Origin, would require her to tell a story that spanned generations and continents, filming in the US, Germany, and India. Starring Academy Award nominee Aunjanue Ellis as Wilkerson, Origin would be an ambitious undertaking for DuVernay, who made the film independently in order to tell the story on her own terms. “It was an adventure unlike anything that I could imagine having,” DuVernay tells Vanity Fair in her first interview about Origin, which will have its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on September 6. “It was a self-fashioned project that was a globe-trotting adventure, an intellectual journey of this Black woman writing this piece, where she’s unraveling mysteries of our humanity, and why we are the way we are to each other.”
Caste was a literary phenomenon in 2020, spending 55 weeks on the US bestseller lists and reportedly selling more than 1.5 million copies. Wilkerson, the Pulitzer –winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns, presents a bold and convincing premise, that racism in America is a caste system similar to those in India and Nazi Germany.
When DuVernay first reached out to Wilkerson, the author thought DuVernay wanted to make a documentary like she had with 13th, or perhaps a film focused on the history in the book, as she did in Selma. But DuVernay pitched her on the idea of centering the film on her own journey in actually writing the book, which would require that her personal life become a part of the story. “I explained that it would be important for folks to feel emotionally connected to someone in order to take us through the explanation of what Caste is,” she says. “It has to be personal.”
DuVernay says Wilkerson was quick to agree, and they would talk on the phone as DuVernay worked on the script. “I want the film to be a salute to the reverence that she has for life, the rigor that she has for her work, and to try to put that in this motion picture that would tell the story as I interpreted it through her sharing with me,” says DuVernay.
Shortly before she began work on the book, Wilkerson lost both her husband and her mother; DuVernay captures her grief onscreen in symbolic and tactile ways that make the film feel deeply personal. “Well, I could only tap into my own experiences with grief,” says DuVernay. “What I rendered was what it felt like to me, just using my own personal experiences.”
Jon Bernthal plays her husband, Brett Kelly Hamilton; the actor and DuVernay first met for a long dinner in Savannah, Georgia. She remembers after they closed down the restaurant that night, Bernthal suggested they walk back to their hotels. “It got us into a really interesting conversation about what it’s like to walk down the street in a city you don’t know as a white man, and what it’s like to walk down the street in a city you don’t know as a Black woman,” says DuVernay. She describes him as “a whole vibe. But he’s also insanely talented, and can do a lot more than I think the things that he's usually thought up for.”
But the center of the story is Aunjanue Ellis, whom DuVernay had previously worked with on Netflix’s When They See Us. Though Ellis has had a long and fruitful career (she earned her first Oscar nomination for 2021’s King Richard and will soon be seen in the musical The Color Purple), Origin is the first time that Ellis has been number one on the call sheet. “I think that she is an actor of outsized power, and I always wondered and was angry about the fact that I’ve never seen her in a lead,” says DuVernay.
Much of the supporting cast of Origin are actors that DuVernay has worked with before, including Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, and Nick Offerman. “I think it was the first film I’ve worked on where there wasn’t a lot of auditioning or back and forth,” says DuVernay. “I called these people and I said, ‘I’d like you for this.’ And happily, most folks accepted.”
In the film, Wilkerson becomes the kind of protagonist that has often been played by white men—a crusading genius in pursuit of the truth. “This is a film that asks people to center a woman’s interiority and her intellect,” DuVernay says. “We are offered those films with men at the center often. This film asks the same thing, except the character doesn’t usually look like the kinds of people we follow. I’m interested in the reaction to that.”
The director went on a journey similar to Wilkerson’s, traveling to Berlin and Delhi to find details about some of the people who are mentioned in Caste that she knew she wanted to expand into bigger stories in Origin. That includes a Nazi man and a Jewish woman who fell in love, and the African American researchers Allison and Elizabeth Davis, who wrote the book Deep South. “To be able to dive deeper into these seeds that Isabel planted, to research them further, and to bring them to life was a big task, and it was a beautiful task,” she says. “It was so fun, following the trails that she started, and trying to make them fully blossom in pictures.”
DuVernay forged her own path making this film, securing independent financing with her producing partner, Paul Garnes, and shooting for just 37 days across three countries. “Not doing it wasn’t an option. Altering it to fit into a studio box wasn’t an option. I understood that we were going to have to go back to our indie roots,” says DuVernay. Origin will be the first film by an African American woman to ever play in competition at Venice, and DuVernay is well aware of the weight of that history. “To be able to say, as an African American woman, my work can be presented on a world stage in competition, and that should be able to happen. The fact that it had not happened doesn’t mean that it should not happen. It was something that I want for myself and for others like me,” she says.
Origin will premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on September 6 and is currently seeking distribution. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage.