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Ava DuVernay on the urgent need for ‘Origin’ and where she finds joy

For Ava DuVernay, films are a vehicle to spark meaningful conversations and ignite change.

And that’s exactly what she said she hopes comes from her latest film, “Origin,” a story that tackles the roots of America’s inequality, division, and oppression.

The director, writer and producer sat down with CNN this week to discuss the film, the sense of urgency she feels around its message, and where she finds joy in storytelling.

Though “Origin” did not receive Oscar recognition this year, DuVernay praised this year’s slate of nominees for their diversity, calling it “a beautiful, cross-section of cultures and kinds of people.”

“The awards are light on a film,” she said. “They add light to a film, to performances, to the work of craftspeople and they amplify them.”

DuVernay said she hopes to shine a similar kind of light through her films, which often ask viewers to confront America’s history of racial inequality.

And with “Origin,” DuVernay’s goal was no different.

“Films play a big part in setting a national mood,” DuVernay told the audience at a DC screening of the film. “Artists need to begin to use our weapons to defend against anything that threatens justice and dignity. And so, this is my contribution to that.”

“Origin” is based on Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s novel, “Caste: The Origin of our Discontents.” The film follows Wilkerson’s personal and professional journey to uncovering the caste systems that fuel social inequality both in the United States and around the world.

CNN spent a day with DuVernay, who felt such a sense of urgency around sharing the message of this film and brought the conversation straight to Washington, DC, and those tasked with creating the nation’s laws.

“I really hope that it is a spark for some action, for some dialogue, for some energy that I just feel we don’t have as we should, especially this year,” DuVernay said.

Ava DuVernay looks through a collection of historic relics and photos curated by the staff at the Library of Congress under the leadership of Dr. Carla Hayden, the first woman and first Black person to serve as Librarian of Congress. - Chandelis Duster/CNN
Ava DuVernay looks through a collection of historic relics and photos curated by the staff at the Library of Congress under the leadership of Dr. Carla Hayden, the first woman and first Black person to serve as Librarian of Congress. - Chandelis Duster/CNN

Bringing ‘Origin’ to the nation’s capital

On an icy Thursday in late January, DuVernay’s high-heeled footsteps echoed through the halls of the Library of Congress, where she appeared pensive as she gazed at the columns and architecture.

“As we were walking around, I was constantly coming across busts and friezes and facades, literally carved into the buildings themselves and saw no Asian people, brown people, Black people, women in the actual structures,” she said.

“There was a glaring absence of the majority of this country, and I think that that speaks in a much larger way to not only what the halls of power look like physically, but more often, what the behavior is inside of them.”

That behavior – and the upcoming presidential election – have been top of mind for DuVernay since she began working on the movie. “Origin” was filmed in 37 days and DuVernay previously told CNN she wanted it to be released ahead of the 2024 election to spark conversations about the roots of division in the US.

“I’m just trying to ring the alarm,” she said. “If I can say, what, 10 months before this election, ‘It’s going to be bad.’ … We have a little bit of time to try to steer this in a different direction.”

She later toured the Old Supreme Court Chamber, where monumental cases like Dred Scott v. Sandford, were decided.

That landmark Supreme Court case, which ruled that the protections of the Constitution did not apply to people of Black or African descent, played a pivotal role in establishing a legal foundation for slavery and entrenching America’s racial hierarchy.

DuVernay said confronting these difficult moments in our history is key to making sure it doesn’t repeat.

“This is the exact blueprint of Nazism,” DuVernay said at the film screening. “You are overwhelmed by the negativity. You’re so fatigued by all that’s happening, and all the crazy rhetoric that you just stop listening and you look the other way. And you focus on this thing, and this thing, and these small things – when this huge thing is happening,”

DuVernay also held separate closed-door meetings with Democrats House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. She told the audience they spoke candidly about “The lack of urgency I feel we are suffering from – the stripping of human rights.”

Ava DuVernay meeting with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The US House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a non-partisan and non-legislative support office, coordinated DuVernay's visit to the United States Congress for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. - Chandelis Duster/CNN
Ava DuVernay meeting with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The US House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a non-partisan and non-legislative support office, coordinated DuVernay's visit to the United States Congress for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. - Chandelis Duster/CNN

Finding joy community

Despite tackling some of the heaviest issues of our time through her work, DuVernay said she always finds room for joy.

On her trip to DC, she visited her mentor and filmmaker, Haile Gerima at his bookstore, Sankofa, and mingled with her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, sorority sisters.

She also visited Howard University where she took questions from inquisitive students on how she brought the novel from paper to the big screen.

DuVernay said stepping outside of Hollywood circles to discuss her films is where she often finds joy – in the community.

“Congregating with people, hearing folks talk about what mattered to them in the film … it’s just an exciting thing to just be around folks,” she said. “They just enjoy and consume film for what it’s meant for, a sense of engagement.”

DuVernay also said she takes pride in elevating stories of America’s unvarnished history, and while many of the films she creates are based on heavy subjects, DuVernay said she considers the work to be a privilege.

“In this moment, I’m the teller of these stories. I feel it as a source and carry it with a sense of great pride,” she said.

“At the end of the day, it is something that I get to do, that I elect to do, that I want to do, that I pursue, that I put into motion. I’m not a director for hire. This comes from my own head.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Isabel Wilkerson’s first name.

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