Finding the ‘heart space’: Director Ava DuVernay gets personal for new film

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Filmmaker Ava DuVernay is shown in profile, gesturing with one hand outstretched
Director Ava DuVernay speaks with the CBC’s Eli Glasner about what compelled her to create her latest and perhaps most challenging film, Origin. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When you sit down to interview Ava DuVernay, you quickly realize how she rose to the top of her profession in 12 short years.

Before DuVernay became an Oscar-nominated director with Selma, before her sci-fi adventure A Wrinkle in Time broke box office records for Black female directors, DuVernay was working as a publicist and dreaming of telling her own stories. 

Sit down across from her and you notice the attention to detail as she clocks the placement of the lights and camera, the publicist brain quickly asking questions about the news program.  

To make her newest film, Origin, DuVernay drew on everything she has learned as a director and a documentarian. Based on the award-winning book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, the film explores connections between racism in America and the dehumanizing practices of Nazi Germany and India’s caste system. 

An African American woman in the middle of a crowded street in India.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as author Isabel Wilkerson. The film follows Wilkerson to India, where she explores the connections between India’s caste system and anti-Black racism in the U.S. (Elevation Pictures)

It’s a lot. But what makes Origin unlike anything she’s attempted is DuVernay’s decision to make Wilkerson the main character, teasing out the implications of her thesis while struggling with her personal sense of loss. Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson, the result is a remarkably powerful and potent film with the potential to shake up the Oscar race.

CBC News spoke with the director in Toronto about her decision to personalize the film and her journey from dolls to directing. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A woman stands on outdoor steps surrounded by actors and film crew with a statue and the Berlin TV tower in the background
Ava DuVernay directs a scene in Berlin set during the Nazis’ rise to power. (Elevation Pictures)

What was it like in the theatre when the credits rolled? Because, this film — there’s so much weight there.

It’s been fascinating sharing this film, more than any of the other things that I’ve made, from Selma to 13th to … A Wrinkle in Time

The reactions have been deeply personal because it deals with grief, it deals with dehumanization, it deals with different aspects of our history that seem to be hitting people in a heart space. Usually after the screening, I can hear sniffles, I see people hugging one another. I see people contemplating what they’ve seen.

The way you opened up that ‘heart space’ for this book, which people could see as something that was academic, is you decided to use Isabel’s journey as the vehicle. What did you think that we would get from being with her grief?

Even in a Marvel film, your favourite ones are the ones where you’re like, “I really like Iron Man” — when you know this guy and you’re on the journey with him.

So for this, there was a lot that I wanted to share about history and about our place in contemporary society. But the way to get it to a heart space is to go through a person that you care about. So Isabel Wilkerson as a character became the conduit to open that up. 

Close-up on actors Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a scene with their faces close together
While Origin explores the thesis of real-life author Isabel Wilkerson’s book about discrimination, it also follows her personal life during a difficult time. Above, Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson and Jon Bernthal as her husband, Bret. (Elevation Pictures)

You have Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor with this remarkable performance as Isabel. But I’m curious, did it resurface your own grief? As you’re helping Aunjanue be Isabel, what did that do for you?

It’s the first time I’ve heard that question. I haven’t really contemplated, but grief is a big part of my work overall. My very first film was about about the loss of a loved one, and my second film was about the loss of loved one due to incarceration. Even A Wrinkle in Time is about a a girl whose father is gone and she has to go find him. I think it’s something that I struggle with. 

Is that how you work on your own grief?

It’s been a bit of a therapy for me as an artist. You’re thinking through the human condition as it relates to the scenes. So as I look back, I don’t have a therapist. But maybe, maybe movies have been. 

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay gestures with one hand
Ava DuVernay says many of her films deal with grief, and creating them has been a form of therapy for her. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

What made you get back in the trenches and go on this global journey with an independent budget?

The studio system is nice for a lot of things. It’s cushy and it’s comfortable. But you trade freedom for comfort, and I was interested in being fully free and being able to say and express exactly what I wanted to do with this film. In order to do that, I had to put on my backpack and get out in the world and shoot this thing in 37 days and three countries.

You’ve already done so much in your work looking at racism. What was it about the book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, that compelled you?

I think it’s the interconnectedness of it. This one connected our experience to the experiences of others in different times, in different places around the world, and that was a mind-blower for me.

How are we connected to Nazi Germany? How are we connected to the caste system in India and other systems where folks are put on a scale of human dignity? And how does that fit into what we’re experiencing right now?  

If we think that we’re better or less than other people, that is a trauma that we’re carrying that is very much like a death that’s gone unacknowledged. So I saw parallels within that.

People throw books on a raging fire at night
In a scene from Origin, Germans at a Nazi rally throw books by Jewish authors on a bonfire. (Elevation Pictures)

Blurring lines, breaking down barriers

I want to take you back a little because you did something remarkable that I think a lot of people would like to do, jumping from one career to another. Back when you were a film publicist, when did realize you wanted to start telling your own stories?

It’s interesting because thinking about it now, I have to remind folks that there was no precedent for anything that I’m doing right now. There was no Black female filmmaker I could look to and say, “Oh, she’s doing that.”

That’s scary. 

And that was only 12 years ago. I never thought that I’d be a full-time filmmaker. Never imagined it. I’ll get emotional even talking about it. Never imagined it because I couldn’t see it.

And no one had ever done that before in a way where they weren’t also teaching or they weren’t married with some help. So the idea that I’m doing that — and it’s not even been a decade and half — and thriving at it, is a mind-blowing reality, that I sometimes still have to pinch myself.

Ava DuVernay poses with a Barbie-sized doll of her likeness
Ava DuVernay poses with a Barbie doll in her likeness, part of the special edition Sheroes collection. (UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital)

Was Ava, the little girl growing up in Compton, Los Angeles, a storyteller? Did she have that drive? 

Now, I’ve talked to my friend J.J. Abrams or Mr. Spielberg, and at that age they had cameras. So they were telling their stories with cameras. But I didn’t have cameras. I told my stories with Barbies.

That’s why it’s so meaningful that I have a Barbie in my likeness, because my sisters and I would make full, day-long stories where my mother would have to say, “Stop playing the Barbies!” We had dialogue, little houses. They were living life.

I think the thing that I find so exciting about Origin… this story shouldn’t really work, but you found a way to fuse these two aspects of the personal and the political together. It’s a new hybrid. 

Well, I think that I freed myself from some of the boxes that I think I had been in. Blurring the lines between documentary and narrative…, dealing with two stories that feel like they don’t really go together. Then it turns and each part of it is a building block to the culmination of the story, just stretching and exploring. That’s what art is supposed to be.

In Hollywood, so often we become smaller and afraid of trying things that may not hit everyone. And it’s OK.

Hollywood’s really good about putting things in boxes, but you’re kind of tearing those things apart.

I try.

Close-up on Ava DuVernay laughing
Ava DuVernay laughs during an interview with CBC’s Eli Glasner. Working as a film publicist only 12 years ago, she says, she never imagined she’d succeed as a full-time filmmaker. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Origin opens in theatres Friday.  


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