Ava DuVernay's 'Origin' Redefines Filmmaking With a Visionary Approach

In an exclusive interview with, DuVernay, lead actor Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and Emmy-winning actress Niecy Nash-Betts discuss the film's creation, the power of cinema, and the profound impact of telling stories that matter.

Where would this world be without visionaries? Those incredible individuals trust their instincts and creative minds to wrap around a concept and deliver a complete, solid masterpiece. Ava DuVernay is an undeniable visionary. As a director who first picked up a camera at 32 years old and did not go to film school, DuVernay’s career is a testimony of what could happen if you trust your instincts, feed your creativity, and believe in your vision. 

The visionary’s latest film, "Origin,” is an intimately epic offering of an adaptation of NY Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents. DuVernay was met with trepidation and confusion from everyone from her Array team to studio bigwigs, wondering how she would adapt such an academically complex book. DuVernay wasn’t worried; she saw the stories inside Caste and challenged Hollywood’s status quo in filmmaking to get this film done her way. 

Ava DuVernay attends a red carpet for the movie "Origin" at the 80th Venice International Film Festival

Ava DuVernay Wants 10,000 16-Year-Olds to Experience Her Latest Film ‘Origin’ for Free

DuVernay and her producing partner Paul Garnes returned to their independent filmmaker roots and raised $38 million to financially back "Origin". Without the constraints of being a studio film, they could approach this film in nuanced and fresh ways that DuVernary envisioned. We see historical, surreal, and archival elements while blending in documentary and authentic audio. And we get to see Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in the lead role as Isabel Wilkerson, an intellectual Black woman on a journey around the world and back again, looking for answers about hierarchy and privilege in the world, all while connecting herself to the story. DuVernay said there was no other film starring a Black woman that she could compare "Origin" to, and we know Hollywood loves a comp! So, in going independent, DuVernay created a precedent with "Origin." 

Caste is a heavy text filled with learnings, and connections to Nazi Germany, India’s Dalits, and beyond, but "Origin" is a love story filled with other love stories. From the central love story between Wilkerson and her late husband Brett (played by John Bernthal) that breaks the very caste system she explains to love stories spanning centuries, like Allison and Elizabeth Davis, two Black researchers and anthropologists who helped write Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class or August Landmesser (German man from a 1936 photograph refusing the Nazi salute) and Irma Eckler (a Jewish woman) and more, like the love of a mother and daughter, or cousins (Isabel and Marion–played by Niecy Nash-Betts) who are more like sisters; love and its unlimited possibilities to change things, is the central theme in this beautifully moving film. 

And even though DuVernary is accustomed to doing things unconventionally, creating "Origin" while exploring caste systems allowed her to challenge caste on set. There were no A, B, or C cams; each camera operator was essential and allowed to shoot that way. Background actors had access to DuVernay, and in one instance, during a scene about artist and educator Al Bright, a background actor earned a chance to have a speaking role after sharing a similar experience from when he was a boy to what happened to Al Bright at the pool that day in 1951. No spoilers, but this particular scene in "Origin" may bring tears to your eyes.

 Many parts of this film will bring tears to your eyes for many reasons. You may gasp. You may hold your breath. You may feel smarter. One thing is for certain: "Origin" will change you. had the privilege of sitting down with DuVernay, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Emmy-winning actress Niecy Nash-Betts to talk about how DuVernay challenges the industry and why "Origin" is a masterpiece. I love that in "Origin," we see Isabel Wilkerson’s rough and enlightening journey to creating Caste to understand how her thoughts connected into one central theme, which was half the battle. Ava, you had a similar battle, getting folks to understand the significance of this adaptation that you were warned was unadaptable, as well as showing us there are other ways things can be done; whether through the unconventional ways you received funding for the film, how you cast and even how you handle the call sheet. There’s beauty in shaking up the status quo. You posted that your lead, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, was handing out fliers in front of a movie theater.

Ava DuVernay: Very rare for an actor; it was very moving. I think it speaks to the sense of community and sisterhood that I felt with Aujanue, with Niecy, with Audra McDonald, with all the sisters of Array, and with Paul Garnes of Array. This was really a film made and powered by Black leadership within the production. That's something very all of us rarely experienced that, outside of an independent film space. We have independent productions where we see that more and more, but instead of lamenting what isn't, we build what is. 

It was a powerful moment to be out in the world with Paul Garnes, my producing partner, and my brother, just us out in Germany, out in Delhi, out in Savannah, making this film come to life with Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor leading a cast and being number one on the call sheet that had a strength of purpose and was always very focused and rigorous in the work and it made everyone else kind of sit up straight. Niecy with the grace and the graciousness to come in and out while she was in the midst of another job, to come into town on four different weekends on her one day off to play this role, it just speaks to how everyone held hands and everyone pushed this up a mountain and now I feel we're at the top of the mountain, we're about to release the film to real people, which is what matters. We're excited about where we are. So much intellectual knowledge in the book Caste is reflected in "Origin." The first cut was said to be over 4 hours. Why not make it a series?

Ava DuVernay: There’s a lot of Aunjanue walking around India. I just couldn't cut it. It was just so fantastic to see the sister and the exploration, it was so many good things, I can make a whole ‘nother movie from that. I think the power of cinema is unmatched. The import of this was a feature film. I've done limited series that I feel very proud of, both of these women [Aunjanue and Niecy] are huge parts of “When They See Us,” they’re Emmy-nominated roles in that. But, for me, movies are the queen category, so that's what I wanted to pursue for this. There is so much trauma to unpack inside of "Origin," and we deeply feel Isabel Wilkerson’s losses. How the trauma is portrayed allows some healing for us as well. Aunjanue, what do you think you’ve learned about trauma in playing Isabel during these heartbreaking moments of her life?

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: I feel like, as a Black person in this country, I live with trauma every day. It's just a reality of being a Black American, a descendant of chattel slavery in America. It is just a part of our existence. It's just how you channel it. This was an experience where I could…you know, a lot of times because our jobs ask us to keep that [trauma] at bay; this was a place where I could live with it. I can live with it in a way I could give it space. 

And I loved what Ava did visually to do that, to provide that space, to provide the church to do that, to put me on the ground where I was in my heart, I was on the ground and I was having these leaves fall on me and I just think that it was visually arresting. Almost everyone talks about the film, they bring up that story and then for her to take the composition of that scene and switch it up and have Al Bright in that same position, she [Isabel Wilkerson] was reaching in when she was going through it herself, but then she's reaching out when she talks to Al Bright. That’s good! In walking the walk, no background characters existed in "Origin." Everyone was essential in moving the story forward, especially Niecy’s character, Marion. What was the most thrilling thing for you to be a part of yet another Ava DuVernay masterpiece? 

Niecy Nash-Betts: Working with my dear friend, Ava, was the most thrilling part for me. First of all, she is so talented. And the fact that she took this book and adapted it in such a way to make it palatable to so many people, I was like, ‘Listen, I'm your friend, but I'm also a fan!’ So Ava will always and forever have me at hello. Then you tack onto the end of that, she's like, ‘Oh yeah and Aunjanue is playing the lead.’ I'm like, ‘What?! Where do I fall in?’ And I'm going to be changed by this material in this work? Yes, I'm working and learning! I love my life!

"Origin" opens wide on January 19th. 

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