‘Origin’ star Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor names Prince and Nina Simone as her inspirations this February — and year-round
“Let’s talk about Prince,” the actress, 54, says with a big grin.
The King Richard Oscar nominee is one of several trailblazers who spoke exclusively to PEOPLE about how they honor those who came before during February, the United States’ Black History Month. (For more from Ellis-Taylor, Tyler James Williams, SZA and more, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.)
“Of course the month is too short,” Ellis-Taylor tells PEOPLE. “Black History Month is every day of the year, 365/24.”
Among her countless reasons for picking the late Prince as a top inspiration is the musician’s cinematic sensibility. “He was also a filmmaker,” she says of the star of 1984’s Purple Rain.
“All of his videos of his songs were incredibly cinematic. He had that eye.”
The late singer-songwriter and civil rights activist, says Ellis-Taylor, “sings us into knowledge.” In fact, she adds, Simone’s lyrics resonate for the same reasons the issues explored in Origin do.
“It speaks to this thing that I talk about, this confrontation” in DuVernay’s filmmaking, the actress explains. “That kind of work, that kind of confrontational work, that makes me excited.”
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Origin dramatizes the findings in Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, blending them with biographical elements from the life of Wilkerson herself. It’s the kind of film that arrives just in time for Black History Month, as Ellis-Taylor points out.
“I feel like books like Caste, films like Origin, invite us to — whether you agree with it or you don't agree with it — to talk,” she says, about racism and caste systems then and now.
“They give us an opportunity to build some bridges. And that's what Isabel Wilkerson imagines herself to be, a bridge-builder. Her father was a literal builder of bridges after he left the service. He was a Tuskegee Airman, he couldn't find work as a pilot. So he got a civil engineering degree and he built bridges.”
Ellis-Taylor continues: "I've heard her say that she's continuing the work that her father started. She is a builder of bridges, of tearing down these social divisions that are so fraudulent and stupid and allowing us to build bridges between each other.”
Black History Month, she adds, is useful if it’s a time that “makes us pause and face those truths to do that bridge building.”
Origin has built bridges during events and Q&As held by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Regina King and Ben Affleck. Following its Jan. 19 release, the movie earned a special honor from the Critics Choice Association, the Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment.
Origin is in theaters now.
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