Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Ava DuVernay’s Docudrama of Ideas, “Origin,” Gets a Splashy Lincoln Center Premiere, Explains Movie’s Alternative Title

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Editor’s note: Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” opens today. A kind of docudrama, “Origin” is like a PBS miniseries of ideas. -RF

Here’s our report from the premiere:

As the swanky premiere of Ava DuVernay’s new film, “Origin,” at Alice Tully Hall last week, made evident: this director is fearless. Taking “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a 2020 best-selling book by Isabel Wilkerson, DuVernay created her own genre, taking the lessons of the book, folding them into the narrative of the writer writing the book, and adding elements ripped off the headlines.

The film starts with the actual soundtrack of Trayvon Martin’s murder, significant because this horrible killing put the situation of innocent black men at risk on the proverbial map. But on the geographic map, DuVernay’s reach brings together key far flung places — Germany, India, the United States — to show how caste, not race, is instrumental in understanding how the powerful subjugate others, dehumanizing, creating cultural divisions, separating targeted groups from equal status.

Lately, research into the Nazi agenda illustrates how antisemitism of the 1930’s was informed by the study of how Americans constructed slavery. Filming in Berlin, DuVernay’s fictional Isabel, in a fine performance by Aunjanue-Ellis Taylor visits the famed Jewish Museum archive. The film transitions to a story about a Nazi party member who refused to signal “heil” because he was in love with a Jewish woman. Having stripped Jews from citizenship, confiscated their property, murdered them, the concentration camp system seems a logical consequence of this ideology—if you claim supremacy–no matter how baseless, heartless, inhumane, and self-serving.

The caste system in India works on a similar level of dehumanization. Focused on the Dalits (Untouchables), the film depicts men neck deep in sewage—an image you cannot unsee.

The story of artist Al Bright makes for a riveting mini-movie, when as a 9-year old he was not permitted into a swimming pool with his teammates. That he was led around the pool on a rubber float, repeatedly told not to touch the water, is hilarious in its pointlessness, if it were not a sad reminder of the basic stupidity of segregation.

A party hosted by Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation followed at the penthouse with David Remnick, Charles Blow, the exonerated Central Park Five, Brigitte LaCombe, Linda Jablonsky, RosaLee Goldberg, Myles Frost who plays Trayvon Martin, and Finn Whitrock, the movie’s German lover, attending. Stan Walker, from an indigenous tribe in New Zealand, wrote the movie’s final song, and sang it for the audience. Slimmed, impeccably coifed, and gorgeous in a sequined gown, DuVernay greeted guests. When asked how she got the title, “Origin,” she was quick to respond: “If I called it Caste, no one would come.” Smart, just like this important film.

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