Ava DuVernay's new film "Origin" is loosely based on Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book "Caste."
The film opens on the last night of Trayvon Martin's life in 2012.
DuVernay told BI that she sought to "humanize" Martin in the film, and obtained his mother's blessing.
Ava DuVernay's newest film "Origin" is a movie that's as ambitious as its acclaimed source material. Loosely based on Isabel Wilkerson's bestselling 2020 nonfiction book, "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," the film uses Wilkerson's thesis about the connection between American racism and rigid social hierarchy to tell a story that's part sweeping historical analysis, part personal drama.
At the center of it all is Isabel (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), an author who embarks on a globe-spanning journey to write a book about the intersection of racism and caste.
But despite being inspired by work of scholarly nonfiction, "Origin," in theaters now, is less about Wilkerson's theory than her character's method of crafting it.
"The film is about an intellectual, creative process of a Black woman scholar and author," DuVernay told Business Insider. "I was less interested in debating, proving, holding up, dismantling, talking about her ideas as I was fascinated by her pursuit of the ideas."
"Origin" cuts across the world and between periods to depict different caste systems in various moments in history, setting scenes everywhere from Nazi Germany to early 20th century India. But its opening scene is set a lot closer to home: in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, on the last night of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's life.
While Martin's death is a defining moment for Wilkerson that ultimately sets her on the path of formulating the central theory in "Caste," DuVernay took pains to ensure Martin wasn't treated as a plot device.
Before moving forward with any plans to depict Martin in the film, DuVernay contacted his mother, Sybrina Fulton, for consent. The director and writer added that she deliberately sought to humanize Martin by depicting the mundane moments of his life in the moments before his killing.
"It opens on him having a very carefree conversation with his homegirl on the phone, and going in to buy candy, and being very deliberate with counting out change for the cashier, and defending himself against the sprinkles happening outside in the rain by putting up his hoodie," DuVernay told BI. "You don't see anything that happens to him until another 20 minutes in the film."
DuVernay told BI that she involved Martin's family throughout the process, inviting Fulton to her production company's campus in Los Angeles to view parts of the film and ensuring that she "had a voice in the process" regarding her son.
Ultimately, the director said that she hopes her decision to depict Martin's life before tragedy are also salient commentary on the film.
"By speaking to what was shown, you humanize him," she told BI. "That was the goal, and he deserves that."
"Origin" is in theaters now.
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