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6 March 2024

Origin: an awkward adaptation of complex race theory

Ava DuVernay’s take on Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is a lesson in the history of prejudice – and the perils of literary adaptation.

By Pippa Bailey

Origin is an awkward thing: a biopic of a book, disguised as a biopic of its author. It’s an endeavour that is both bold and decidedly odd. The writer-director Ava DuVernay’s source material is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer for journalism. But this is not a straight adaptation; how could it be? Caste is a blend of narrative and research, memoir and history, that draws parallels between the oppression of black people in the US, the caste system in India and the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. Its central thesis is that it is not race but caste, a systemic force that imprisons people in a strict social hierarchy, that underpins all these divisions.

How can racism make sense of the Holocaust, Wilkerson asks, when the majority of Nazis and Jews were white, or of the caste system in India, in which Dalits are considered fit only to clean sewers by hand, but where “they’re all brown”? Caste’s conceptual appeal to DuVernay – whose previous films include When They See Us, about the Central Park Five, and a documentary about racism in US prisons, 13th – is clear. The logic of adapting it as a drama, rather than a documentary, is not.

When we meet Isabel Wilkerson, played with dignity and warmth by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, her life revolves around her relationships with her mother, who is moving into assisted living, and her white husband, Brett (the ever-reliable Jon Bernthal). In shockingly quick succession, both these partnerships are ended by death. Wilkerson’s grief, which evolves in tandem with her book, is the most conventionally dramatic element of Origin, the closest thing it has to a plot.

The film begins with Wilkerson listening to the 911 tapes from the night the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, with a view to writing about the case. (The real-life audio plays over a harrowing re-enactment.) She becomes convinced that a “default” condemnation of racism is too shallow an answer. For reasons unknown, this brings to Wilkerson’s mind August Landmesser, who was photographed refusing to salute at a Nazi rally in 1936. Landmesser fell in love with a Jewish woman, Irma, who was eventually murdered at the Bernburg “euthanasia centre” in 1942. Their story is one of several historical diversions rendered evocatively by cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd. In others, we see the black anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis watching a Nazi book burning, and going undercover to study the social dynamics of 1930s Natchez, Mississippi. Black slaves chained to the crude wooden bunks of a ship writhe and cry out. White people pose for the camera at a lynching. It is a testament to DuVernay’s skill that despite these detours the audience is never lost.

Elsewhere, Wilkerson embarks on the research for her book. She visits Berlin, where she learns that Nazi lawyers used the Jim Crow laws as inspiration for the Nuremberg Race Laws. And India, where she finds that Martin Luther King, on being introduced by a Dalit principal as a “fellow untouchable”, realised the similarities between the caste system there and the forces he was fighting back home. These are presented as intellectual a-ha moments, though both are already well known. (The thesis of Caste is not new: as early as the 1940s, the sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox was disparaging the “caste school” of race relations.)

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DuVernary never makes a cohesive, compelling case for Wilkerson’s ideas. One of the strongest criticisms of Caste – that the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany and the economic subjugation of black people in the Confederate South are not the same – is aired in a wincing dinner-party scene. Her answer here is that they are: so many millions of African Americans were murdered over hundreds of years that there is no official death toll. That’s that, then. Save for the evident injustices in both countries, it is never made entirely clear how racism in the US and the centuries-old caste system in India share a common root.

Origin’s depictions of love, grief, discrimination and violence are wide-ranging and affecting. But there is a yawning disconnect between the high stakes of a black teenager being shot in the street, or the incomprehensible evil of the Final Solution, and the low stakes of Wilkerson meeting her book deadline: there is nothing particularly dramatic about writing “endogamy” on a whiteboard and underlining it. Origin is full of great performances and big ideas, but I’m not convinced that it should have been anything other than a book.

“Origin” is in cinemas now

[See also: Dune Part Two review: pure spectacle]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

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