Origin director Ava DuVernay: ‘There’s pain, there’s fear, there’s injustice’

The film-maker’s focus on equality and inclusion is helping to change the movie industry. Her new feature, based on the bestseller Caste, continues that fight

Ava DuVernay is a film-maker. She directed Selma, which was nominated for the best-picture Oscar, in 2014 and 13th, a powerful documentary on the prison-industrial complex, two years after that. We meet as Origin, her hybrid take on Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (published this side of the Atlantic as Caste: The Lies That Divide Us), reaches cinemas. But DuVernay is more than that. Following the release of Selma, which deals with a key moment in Martin Luther King’s career, she found herself appointed as an unofficial ambassador for the black cinematic community. It just happened.

No better woman. DuVernay founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement to get films by or about black people into cinemas. She delivers articulate, witty speeches. She works hard for inclusion. But that feels like a lot of pressure to land suddenly on two shoulders.

“I can’t say it felt like pressure,” she says. “When you are looking into the face of an older black man at the airport and he comes up, clasps your hands in his, and says, ‘Keep going. Thank you for doing what you’re doing. Thank you for being our voice,’ it feels like a privilege. To try to hold space in rooms where we have not been – it’s not easy and it’s not always enjoyable. But I didn’t ever feel I was carrying a weight.”

She ended up in this place because of her films. But it also helped that she is a sound communicator and a good listener. It is not an enormous surprise to learn that she came into the film business via the publicity department. DuVernay knows how to connect.


Born and raised in southern California, she read English literature and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles before moving into journalism. There was a period as a publicist with 20th Century Fox. She opened her own PR firm in 1999. Then, in her 30s, she got behind the camera. She seems like an enormously driven woman.

You should be alarmed about the US presidential election. I certainly am

—  Ava DuVernay

“I feel like I am a driven person,” she agrees. “But I felt a change within me in the last year – to have the confidence to slow down. When I first started making films I felt the door would always close after every project. Right? Would I be able to make another project? Would I be allowed into these spaces? Looking back, I feel like I was overachieving. I was doing so much so that I couldn’t ever not do it. You know? You can’t kick me out, because I’ve already got another job. And I’m doing three things at once.”

When DuVernay speaks about not being let back into those spaces, I feel she is getting at something specific. She knew that Hollywood still skewed pink and male. “I knew that as a black woman in this industry, I wouldn’t have people knocking down my door to give me money,” she has said.

If anyone has helped that situation change, it is DuVernay. Selma, her third feature, was a sensation. Telling the story of King’s voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama, in 1965, the film, shot for a relatively meagre $20 million, or about €18.5 million, attracted as much attention for the Oscar nominations it didn’t get as for those it did. Aside from best picture, it managed only best song (which it won).

At any rate, it was a hit. DuVernay went on to make the epic fantasy A Wrinkle in Time for Disney – thus becoming the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget of more than $100 million. So has the situation markedly improved for minorities in Hollywood? For women film-makers? Is the change real?

“No. No. Simple. Quick answer. No, not at all.”

I can’t say that response surprises me.

“You can look at certain anomalies – this film has done well or this one person holds this position – but that’s not systemic change, and that’s not long lasting,” she says. “Change should be permanent. It’s moving from one thing to another. It’s becoming something else. And that has not happened here. There was just a report in the Guardian this morning that says this was the lowest year for female representation in movies in the last 10 years. Barbie was just an anomaly.”

She is on roll. Calm. Clear. Never hurried. A committed communicator.

“You’re still walking into rooms that have the same kind of people. There’s a real challenge as to who owns these companies. Who owns your content? Who moves the money and makes decisions about marketing? Who owns the theatres? Who are the executives? None of that has changed.”

So it’s about the personnel at the top?

“It’s less about the people and more that the systems have not changed,” she says. “They can be women. They can be black or brown people. But if the system hasn’t changed, and still focuses on a certain kind of product, then everyone is serving that direction. So it’s systems. But also, yes, the personnel is similar.”

Duvernay’s Origin, which premiered in competition at Venice International Film Festival last year, offers a useful tool for examining these questions. Wilkerson’s source book approaches race as one element in a global network of caste that takes in religious, social and gender distinctions. It pays particular attention to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and to the Dalit people of India. It would be a mistake to attempt any further summary, but there is something here about the stubborn universality of oppression.

“I’m glad you qualify, at the top of this, that it’s not replacing race. It’s an integration,” DuVernay says. “Caste is a part of the structure of race. That seems to have eluded many of your fellow journalists. Why is it helpful? As someone who exists in a country where the primary lens of identification is race – for everyone – it is important to understand the architecture of the very thing through which we identify ourselves. If you don’t understand all the pieces of the puzzle you can never solve it.”

The obvious way to approach this would be through documentary. DuVernay has shown, in 13th, that she is skilled in that field. But she claims she never considered such an approach. She casts Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor – Oscar nominated as Oracene Price in King Richard – as a version of Wilkerson, struggling with personal grief and with the core concept of her book. She travels to Berlin. She travels to India. Her crumbling house takes on the quality of a metaphor for the United States. It’s a risky swing for the fences.

“There is this magic of something that you can’t quite touch when an idea just descends upon you,” DuVernay says. “And that was really the case with this. It never came to my to mind to do it as a documentary. So it really surprised me when so many people said, ‘Why don’t you do it as a doc?’ One of the first things I thought of was, How can I make this emotional? How can I find the character in it?”

Does that argument seem to set lesser forms of prejudice in the same matrix as true historical calamities? At some point there’s a category distinction. Right?

“Caste allows us to not get into the oppression Olympics,” DuVernay counters. “You get into this thing where people are performing their tragedies – being at a dinner party saying, ‘Mine was better than yours.’ When, at the core, there’s pain. There’s fear. There’s injustice. And, instead of competing over the quality of it, we can say it existed and it’s performed differently for different people.”

This is a conversation with no end. Yet DuVernay will quite properly keep having it. She claims she’s preparing to slow down a little but then goes on to reveal a groaning in-box.

“This is the first time I’ve made a film without another project already lined up right afterward,” she says. “That was on purpose. I feel I can take a six-month break. I can work on our non-profit. I can work on some of the things that I’m concerned with in terms of the election in this country.”

Ah, yes, the upcoming US presidential election. There, surely, is nothing more annoying for an American than someone from another country – Ireland, for example – pontificating about their politics. But let us not pretend that we’re blase about the prospect of Donald Trump II. Looking back at interviews from four years ago, I find she was not slow in laying out her own fears, speaking of his “narrative of racial dominance and ignorance”.

Does she feel he can be stopped?

“You should be alarmed. I certainly am,” she says. “I think the field of possibilities and candidates is disheartening. On both sides there are challenges. It is hard to stay hopeful, but we must. But it’s looking pretty dire. I really hope that this film can animate some energy. I think the most alarming thing I feel is a sense of fatigue. People are not tuned in. They’re not even listening to what’s being said on the campaign trail.”

That sounds plausible. They heard much of the same chatter four years ago. The threats have become commonplace. The promises have even less purchase. There is, to many ears, a mass of indistinguishable white noise in the political space.

“We’ve got to listen. We’ve got to stay alert. We’ve got to stay focused,” she says as if repeating a mantra. “It is now February going into March. And we’re trying to use this film as much as possible to ignite an opening of eyes, a connection of communities. We want people leaving the theatre feeling open hearted and wanting to connect.”

The stakes could hardly be higher.

Origin is in cinemas from Friday, March 8th