.Ava DuVernay’s New Film Makes the Caste Connection

‘Origin’ unpacks intersectionality and history for East Bay audiences

What does the act of a racist vigilante have to do with the caste system in India that works to the detriment of the Dalits, Jewish people during the Holocaust and the system of slavery that’s in the unflattering history of the United States? Ava DuVernay’s film Origin, which is based on Isabel Wilkerson’s writing journey of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, shows that the answer is everything.

It started in Sanford, Florida, on Feb. 26, 2012. Trayvon Martin, enacted by Miles Frost in his big-screen debut, goes to a nearby store to pick up a bag of Skittles. Trayvon is on the phone laughing and talking with a girl, describing his dream breakfast, when he notices he’s being followed. Then there’s a call from a vigilante named George Zimmerman, wherein Zimmerman describes a “boy who looks like he’s up to no good,” defies the advice of the dispatcher and then follows, confronts and kills Martin.

As a contextual note, Zimmerman was later acquitted by the same judge who sentenced Marissa Alexander to years in prison when she fired a warning shot into a wall in response to her husband, with a history of domestic violence, attacking and threatening to kill her.

In Origin, DuVernay unearths a glimpse of the mind, life and approach of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wilkerson as she writes the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. In the film, viewers are exposed to the real-life struggles of a writer as Wilkerson straddles the task of caring for her aging mother, who ends up in an assisted living facility; the desire to be on hiatus and out of the spotlight as a journalist; and the weight of being asked repeatedly by a newspaper editor to review the call Zimmerman placed to a 911 dispatcher before he deputized himself as a Latino man to take the life of a Black man in an all-white neighborhood.

While resisting the editor’s request and grappling with the weight of the modern-day racial injustice that took Martin’s life, Wilkerson talks about it with her mother, her ailing cousin and her husband, before enduring a whole lot of personal loss. Wilkerson believes the glue and the root of oppression is caste, as she ties together the struggles of the Dalit, a group of people living in intense poverty and deemed untouchable in India who are subjected to unthinkable tasks like submerging themselves in sewers to unclog tanks; the subjugation of Jewish people by Nazis; and the 13 generations of people of African descent who were subjected to slavery and treated as property.

In an interview with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, DuVernay makes clear that the movie is not the book, but it dramatizes the very real process that Wilkerson underwent while deep-diving into the connective tissue of oppression that allows human beings to otherize and apply hierarchies to one another based on what should be inconsequential differences of gender, belief systems, religion, caste and race. The film gives viewers a glimpse of the unglamorous, untold story of a writer doing the deep work of telling and curating the truth in a way that moves those who engage with the material to rethink everything they’ve been led to believe.

Is Origin hard to watch? Yes, it is at times. But, it is a film that has something to offer everyone, as it has the potential to validate overlooked lived experiences, inviting people to connect the dots between their own lives and the lives of others and to see the humanity in each other. It also offers relatability, as the very real cycle of life and its finiteness is a part of the backdrop that Wilkerson is forced to navigate as she continues doing the work with the writing of her book for the greater good of humanity. This film is a must-see during Black History Month and again during Women’s History Month.

Jasmine Thomas is an eighth-grade English teacher who watched the film for the second time with her parents, Audwin and Maxine from Vallejo. 

Origin did a good job of expressing complicated ideas,” Jasmine said. “As a teacher, I’m asked to fix a lot of really big problems that have gone on systemically for a long time. This film underscores the idea that it’s all connected, that there’s nothing new and we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don’t learn our history. Everyone should see it—especially with it being an election year. It’s easy to get fired up over an incident, but the film shows how it’s not just one problem, but a connected series of problems relating to caste.” 

Her father, Audwin, found the film to be thought-provoking. “I need to spend some time thinking about it and the connectivity, but I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Especially in the times that we’re living in.”

Audwin, and likely everyone who has seen the film, understandably found the scenes that included footage of slave ships, a reenactment of Martin’s fatal encounter with Zimmerman and scenes exposing the injustices of the Holocaust, along with the subjugation of Dalits in India, particularly hard to watch. 

“Man has been brutal over time, and the film showed that,” Audwin said. And yet he’s glad to have seen the film, and remains optimistic. “I’ve always believed in hope. This was a great picture, but it doesn’t make or break my hope. I’m a believer, and so that makes me a person of hope.” 

Justin Iredale, from Alameda, said the film gave him an appreciation of how modern-day struggles related to history. “The film was intense at times, but it did a really good job at contrasting events and showing how oppression plays out throughout the world,” he said.

In the East Bay, Origin is showing in San Leandro, Pleasant Hill, Vallejo, Richmond, Concord and Oakland. So far it is only available in theaters, but it may eventually be available on a streaming platform. However, there’s arguably no better time than now to support this important work of heart, art, history and truth so that more films like it can make it to the big screen. In the words of Jasmine Thomas, we can “learn our history” in a compelling way so that we don’t have to be doomed to repeat versions and iterations of mistakes made by ancestors and predecessors.

To learn more about ‘Origin’ or gift someone with tickets to see it, visit: www.originfilm.com.

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