Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Weaves the Intricate History of Oppression from the Holocaust to Modern Racism

In the opening scenes of “Origin,” the latest drama, Isabel Wilkerson, a character inspired by the real-life acclaimed author and played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, makes a call from Berlin. She’s delving into the depths of American racism for her research and seeks to understand the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Marion, portrayed by Niecy Nash, and serving as Isabel’s cousin in the film, responds with disinterest, suggesting Isabel should focus on their own people’s stories instead.

Defying this suggestion, the fictional Wilkerson is driven by the belief that the experiences of Jews and Black individuals are intertwined through an invisible societal structure known as “caste,” which fosters cruelty and oppression. This concept is central to the actual Wilkerson’s acclaimed book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which positions Nazism, American racism, and the strict caste system of India as the most prominent caste systems in history. Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” now showing in theaters and partly inspired by Wilkerson’s work, aims to clarify these historical connections.

What is ‘Origin’ about?

“Origin,” crafted by Ava DuVernay, who is known for “Selma” and “When They See Us,” dramatizes the process of writing Wilkerson’s “Caste.” The film employs historical reenactments and personal family narratives to echo the intellectual essence of the book. It opens with a portrayal of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and traverses through different historical periods, including Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South, to explore the concept of caste.

The protagonist’s research in the film incorporates notable 20th-century Jewish literature, featuring a quote from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi and elements from Raphael Patai’s 1956 work “Israel Between East And West.” At one juncture, the movie references Palestinians, paralleling their experiences with those of India’s Dalit community and Black individuals.

Wilkerson’s “Caste” has faced criticism, labeled by some as an embodiment of “critical race theory,” a controversial topic in the United States. The book is at the center of a Texas lawsuit where a public library aimed to retain a collection of books, including “Caste,” despite opposition. Additionally, a Texas lawmaker has cited “Caste” as one of many books potentially causing students psychological distress based on race or sex.

Forbidden Love

DuVernay also depicts the iconic 1936 image of a German crowd saluting Hitler, where one man, identified as August Landmesser, stands defiant with his arms crossed. Landmesser’s romantic involvement with a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler, a year prior to the photograph, is dramatized in “Origin,” illustrating their forbidden love and the consequences they faced under the Nuremberg Laws.

The film also parallels modern book-ban efforts in the U.S. with the Nazis’ book burnings. It spotlights “The Empty Library,” a Berlin memorial to Nazi book burnings, created by Israeli artist Micha Ullman. Additionally, it brings attention to Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet On The Western Front,” a novel denounced by the Nazis and mistaken due to Remarque’s alleged Jewish heritage.

Depiction of Ongoing Tensions

In “Origin,” Wilkerson engages in a debate during her Berlin trip with a German academic over comparing slavery to the Holocaust. The discussion touches on the fundamental differences in the intent behind slavery’s exploitation for profit and the Holocaust’s goal of Jewish extermination. This debate reflects ongoing tensions in the U.S. regarding the framing of historical suffering.

Despite the contention, the film’s portrayal of Wilkerson steadfastly draws parallels between the two tragedies based on the concept of caste, arguing that both established a system where a higher caste could oppress a lower one.

The film concludes with a montage juxtaposing scenes of abuse from the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, and the killing of Trayvon Martin, emphasizing the thematic thread of caste throughout history.

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