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How We Got Here: Ava DuVernay on Origin

The career of singular filmmaker Ava DuVernay is one filled with firsts. After college, she cut her teeth in journalism and public relations. Picking up a camera for the first time at age 32, she made short films, a micro-budget drama, and a few documentaries before her second feature film “Middle of Nowhere” debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where she became the first Black woman to win the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition. With her third film “Selma” she became the first Black woman nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes and the first—and so far the only—Black woman to direct a film nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. With her latest film “Origin,” she became the first Black American woman to have her film compete at the Venice Film Festival.

But DuVernay knows she comes from a long lineage of Black filmmakers whose films pulsate between the personal and the political, even if they often remain on the margins of film history. And she has spent much of her career celebrating the achievements of these pioneers and paying it forward. A fiercely political filmmaker and film executive, her distribution company ARRAY has championed films by contemporary directors of color and even resurrected films by legendary filmmakers like Haile Gerima. Her show “Queen Sugar” has had an all-woman directorial slate, often hiring women for their first TV directing gig. Her Oscar-nominated documentary “13th” and the Emmy-winning mini-series “When They See Us” effortlessly straddled the line between education and entertainment, using the power of cinema to examine history from new angles.

In “Origin,” an inspired adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, DuVernay once again balances the personal with the political. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor gives a fearless performance as Wilkerson while she deals with personal and communal tragedy and works through the thesis at the heart of her book. The film spans decades and crosses the globe, as Wilkerson investigates the impact of caste on human inequality in the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, and contemporary India. 

RogerEbert.com spoke to DuVernay over Zoom about visualizing the life of the mind, her long-time collaboration with editor Spencer Averick, shooting on film for the first time, her contribution to the tradition of Black intellect on screen, and the power and fragility of collective memory.

I was just reading Ayoka Chenzira’s Instagram and I loved the way she compared how you balance Isabel Wilkerson’s personal crisis with her intellectual pursuits in “Origin” to Seret Scott’s character in “Losing Ground.” Was Kathleen Collins’ film on your mind while you were working on that balance?

It was a movie that I watched because it was one of the few films that I could identify that was directed and written by a Black woman that highlighted and centered a Black woman intellectual. It’s something I wanted to revisit, in honor of Kathleen Collins, but also to remind myself that these images have existed; they've come from women before me and that I'm following in a tradition. It's not a long tradition. We haven't had a lot of instances of watching films of Black woman genius. You have a lot of films about white male genius. But there is a legacy of Black woman genius, too. So hopefully, we can contribute to that canon. 

You've spoken a lot about how Isabel is a woman who lives in the life of the mind. How do you then create a visualization of that life? Do you start with storyboards? Do you start with descriptions in your script? How do you visualize someone's mind? 

In writing the script, I really wanted to make sure we chronicled Isabel writing this book from the inside out, as opposed to outside in. So it's a subjective tweaking that needs to be done so that we're not watching her write, but we feel like we're along for the ride. So whether that's where the cameras are placed, whether that's the ways in which the dialogue is being delivered, whether that's what we chose to show and not to show, all of it is crafted so that you are shoulder to shoulder with her as she's moving forward. 

The idea that you are able to think along with her, discover with her when she's sitting in a meeting and someone saying her theory is flawed. We feel like our theory is flawed, because we have come up with that theory with her as well. Or, we least have a connection with what she's come up with up to that point. That was really the goal. To get us inside of her pursuit. Let us be shoulder to shoulder with her, so that we aren’t just observing, but we're experiencing. 

I love all the books we see in her house, the other books that she's reading as she works. You have a pile with books by Richard Wright, W.E.B. Dubois, and collected works of Rita Dove, whose poems I love. 

Thank you for your close, close watch. I appreciate it.

Whenever I see a bookshelf, I'm like, “I gotta write down the books.”

The crew would make fun of me because I was always moving books around and taking books out of the box and repurposing them. That was important. 

I think it's another great way to show just the complexity of her thought process; That it's not just this research, there's also the poetry. She's reading this philosophy. She's reading everything. 

Yes, absolutely. 

I wanted to ask about your collaboration with editor Spencer Averick. He's edited all your films all the way back to your first film, the 2008 documentary “This Is the Life.” That's such a long collaboration. Do you have a shorthand when you’re working together? How does it feel to create with each other for so long?

It's such a joy to be asked about him. My heart just burst with joy when you said that and got warm and tingly. So thank you. If you have a beautiful editor-director relationship, it is one to treasure. I know that I've been so fortunate. I've never had to struggle with trying to express myself in the editing space, which is such a sacred space. It's the space where your movies are actually made. It's where you tell the final story, create the final draft.

I always say although Spencer and I look like exact opposites as people when we stand next to each other—he's a younger white man, I am a decade-older Black woman—somehow since the very beginning, our hearts beat the same. He's the person who has edited hundreds of thousands of hours of racist violent footage for “13th.” He edited the early episodes of “Queen Sugar,” full of the nuances of Black family life. And the ways in which “Origin” skirts along the contours of different cultures and continents and communities. He’s edited everything from “A Wrinkle in Time” to “Selma” to a Jay-Z music video to Apple commercials. Spencer has been with me for all of it. 

When I think about caste and the idea that there are people who are put in different positions based on random traits or that I'm supposed to believe that he is very different from me and I have nothing in common with him and he doesn't understand me and I don't understand him, because of random traits of age and skin color and gender—I know through my relationship with him, that it is simply not true. Because I've spent more hours alone in the dark with Spencer Averick than with anyone else in my life. 

This was your first time shooting on film, which is such a tactile thing. You get to watch rushes; editing is possibly different. What was that experience like for you? 

Shooting on film, it really cemented my collaboration with my cinematographer Matthew Lloyd, which has become a relationship that looms large in my creative practice over the last three years. When I told him that I wanted to shoot on film for the very first time, he jumped into that wholeheartedly and assembled a crew of people and a workflow and a process that really allowed me, as someone who cut her teeth on digital filmmaking, to feel comfortable in a very uncomfortable process. I couldn’t see the images as they're being rendered on screen onset. I had to trust that we got it. I was not able to see my dailies until the next day, if I'm lucky. When we were in India, it was a week later.

So it was a process of having to free myself from the certainty of what digital filmmaking allows me to do. And trust in my collaborators, collaborations that Matthew led. I loved it. I loved the way 16mm feels and looks and what it did to unify all of the different cultures and communities and timeframes in the movie. But also, I loved what the process did, in terms of the trust and relationship building with Matthew and myself. That was a real ride that I enjoyed.

This is such, as you said, a globe-trotting film. It’s epic in scale like the fantastical “A Wrinkle In Time,” but with even more locations and timelines that crisscross as the film progresses. How did you plan out your shoots at such a scale?

It was a thrill every day and a treat to put together as a big puzzle piece. My producing partner Paul Garnes, we've been together since my Sundance-winning film “Middle of Nowhere.” It's been a long time. We’ve made “Middle of Nowhere, “Selma,” “Queen Sugar,” and many other TV shows that we produce under our banner Array. So, with “Origin,” all the things that we note we learned on all those projects came into play. We were able to set out to do something that we had never done. Yet it felt familiar, because we've produced together for so long. Also, without a studio, we didn't have to wade through nos and maybes. We just did it. We’d say, “Let's do it!” and then we went out and did it. 

I think that in terms of seeing the Black cinematic image rendered globally, with global locations, with a Black protagonist in the lead moving around the world autonomously, really, in her mind as an intellectual, imaginative being in the real world is a rare thing. The fact that we got to do it and create those images and now they exist, is ... the word “honor” is overused. But we gave ourselves the honor of doing it, it was not a film that would have been given to us. It's not a film that I believe would have ever been greenlit in a studio system. We didn't even try, except on that first attempt with Netflix. So these images follow the tradition of Melvin Van Peebles and Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima and Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy. These incredible Black filmmakers who traveled the world to make their films or stayed at home to make their films, but made what was in front of them, told the story that they wanted to tell, and every time I make a picture, I stand in that line. I'm proud of that.

I love the filmmakers you’ve mentioned. With “Origin,” I also thought of William Greaves, especially in the intellectual play of it all. Was his work an influence at all?

Of course, there’s William Greaves and Kathleen Collins. These are filmmakers who, in my book, should be as widely known and applauded and lauded as Scorsese, Coppola and the rest, and to hear you say their names thrills me. And yes, all of these are references. All of these are filmmakers who I consider to be the ones that I look up to in terms of visual language, emotional terrain, and Black intellect expressed on celluloid. 

I also referenced Black photographers like Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. There's a number of images that are almost exactly taken from Black image makers in the still photography realm. All of that to the stew. 

I love that this film really looks at how history is a collective memory. That it's a living being; you can access the past in the present; the past reflects on the present and present reflects on the past. I think that fits in with a lot of your films. “13th” does this. “When They See Us” does this. How do you think “Origin” speaks to where we're at now and how it's part of that tradition of living history?

One of the things that I enjoyed with this film was blurring the lines between history and contemporary drama and surreal images as well. Is it narrative? Is it a documentary? All of these things are in the stew to really try to erase the lines and get people to a deeply feeling place. Because the feeling place is the present place. It's now. 

I think that one of the things I wrestle with is the tension between being a student of history and being someone who is trying to be deeply present in the now. What I understand is that I can't truly navigate the now if I do not understand where I've been, as a person, as a people, as a global community. It's impossible for me to sit here, fully free and fully aware of myself in the present moment, if I'm not really clear on what happened in my life in the past to get me here. 

When you take that kind of personal memory, and you add those principles to collective memory, we are a shell of ourselves as a global community. Especially as Americans, because we somewhat refuse to look back clearly. We refuse to really learn from what's happened before. So we fail to be fully present in the now and be able to actually live well, in this moment. We are combative. We are in our corners. We behave like children. We point fingers. We don't listen. We stomp around. We throw tantrums. We're not fluent in any kind of language of maturity. 

So the hope is that you keep talking about what happened and you allow it to inform what's going on now. Hopefully we get to a place where we are a little bit more evolved. I think that's the only way, and that's what I try to practice anyway. 

Note: We also encourage you to listen to this week's interview on Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso between Sam and Ava. And see "Origin" when it goes wider this Friday, January 19th.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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