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film review


Directed by Ava DuVernay

Written by Ava DuVernay, based on the book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal and Niecy Nash

Classification PG; 135 minutes

Opens in theatres Jan. 19

It is easy to understand why filmmaker Ava DuVernay would be the right choice to adapt a book like Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction work, released to acclaim and commercial success in the highly charged summer after the May, 2020 murder of George Floyd, connects racial inequity in the U.S. with the violent ethno-racial stratifications of Nazi-era Germany and India’s long-standing caste system. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author melds research with memoir, travelogue and personal anecdote, with her perspective acting as a witness to the close echoes of history, elucidating for readers within frameworks that, while sometimes prescient, are often too neatly laid out. Indeed, the book has been rightfully critiqued for flattening histories, both past and present, in favour of a single narrative through-line.

Wilkerson’s approach to collating her research under a thematic umbrella brings to mind the twin powers of respectability and sentimentality that often govern DuVernay’s filmmaking. 2014′s Selma, for example, where the so-called “message” and the act of witnessing these almost mythic figures onscreen is less about building out complex worlds or widening our pool of knowledge, and more about paying tribute to history with a glossy ease.

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Jon Bernthal, left, and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a scene from Origin.Atsushi Nishijima/The Associated Press

With Origin, DuVernay pivots away from a literal adaptation of Wilkerson’s book, instead dramatizing the author herself within this hero role. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor stars as Isabel, who, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, is persuaded by her editor to begin working on a second book about the history of racism in America. Still basking in the success of her previous non-fiction work, 2010′s The Warmth of Other Suns, this cinematic version of Wilkerson is successful, respected by her colleagues and beloved by her family, including husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) and cousin/best friend Marion (Niecy Nash).

Over the course of a year, Isabel comes to lose close members of her family and, within this deep grief, becomes buoyed by the hope that she finds in bringing her research to light. Realizing early on in her process that her project is one of global perspective, she flies to Germany and India, meeting with colleagues, archivists, and scholars to learn more about each country’s history of legally and socially coding exclusion. It is from the latter subcontinent that Isabel borrows the structuring logic of the caste system as the core thematic of her new work.

DuVernay is quick to make use of each locale in deeply sentimental montages. In Berlin, Isabel walks through the Holocaust memorial, seemingly overcome by emotion, while dramatizations of Nazi persecution pattern the film more broadly. In New Delhi, DuVernay charts Isabel’s meeting with Dalit activists and academics as she learns about the long history of exclusion and violence against a people long known as “the untouchables.” It is an all-too-obvious, if not overbearing, series of montages that evoke an Eat, Pray, Love tonality — that is, if Eat, Pray, Love availed itself with slow-motion images of unnamed Dalit people immersed in wells of human waste.

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Ava DuVernay directs an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents that is more a dramatization of Wilkerson’s writing process than of the actual book.Handout

Wilkerson’s Caste seems to find some sort of deep profundity in addressing questions that have already been answered with much more complexity by generations of thinkers and artists; and so, too, does DuVernay’s film bring an almost overwrought narrativizing to scenes of violence that many of us know all too well continue to exist today. Alongside such memorialized, supposedly poetic images of Dalit people – sourced here only as a means to structure Wilkerson’s retelling of American history – DuVernay also uses real audio from 911 calls after the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In what is perhaps one of the film’s hardest moments to bear, DuVernay reenacts the hull of a slave ship, capturing stark, high-contrast images of Black bodies stacked upon each other in a sadistic architecture, each shaking and crying out from their confines and thick chains. We do not know who these people are, which lands they come from or even their relation to one another. All that individualizes them is the gendered nature of the violence they experience. It is a scene that exists solely as a poetic vessel, an aesthetic motif hollowed of care, much less a greater educational purpose. Such directorial choices make one question who exactly this movie might be for.

While Ellis-Taylor is, as always, magnetic onscreen, Origin fails her talents, as well as both its characters and story, by reproducing the flaws of Wilkerson’s book with a stoic conviction. Here, Isabel’s personal losses are largely symbolic, as is the prejudice she works to catalogue. Similarly, the characters and histories presented exist stunted and inert, invoked only in service of obvious allegory and an all-too-bare storytelling.

The death of Isabel’s mother is the means by which the writer comes to break bread with a MAGA-hat-wearing plumber. Her contemplation of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is wide-eyed, almost as if she is, for the first time, truly putting together the global scale of human cruelty before sitting down with her German colleagues for a dinner cooked by a private chef. And, perhaps most glaringly, the present day oppressions that Wilkerson encounters outside of the Western world are acknowledged only as a source code for the U.S.’s past.

With Origin, DuVernay has whittled politics, violent inhumanities and story down to their most obvious and digestible parts. Instead of enlightening us with a moving portrait of personal grief or a collective history of resistance, her film offers us mere totems.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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