March 20, 2024

Film Review: "Origin" by Ava Duvernay

 I watched Ava Duvernay's "Origin" on a plane. My thoughts would no doubt be better having read the source material book for the movie, but here is my take.

This is a movie in search of a central theme. Its ambition is to tell three intertwined stories, two of them historical and one contemporary. However the two historical stories are very undertold; the main focus is author Isabel Wilkerson's journey to write the bestselling book Caste. It is definitely an unconventional choice to tell a story about the making of the book; I love that Duvernay chose to tell Wilkerson's story. But the short shrift to the other stories is unfortunate since it means that earlier attempts to theorize caste in a US South context are not substantially addressed; though Allison and Elizabeth Davis are portrayed, their intellectual contributions to theorizing caste are not incorporated into the theoretical framework of the film.
The movie is beautifully shot by Duvernay, the lead actor playing Wilkerson, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor brings emotional depth to her role as a writer dealing with the loss of her closest loved ones and embarking on a global exploration of oppression. In spite of the meandering of the narrative, the movie tells an effective story that holds viewers' attention throughout. As a meditation on loss, it is moving in its way. As a film about race and caste, it is deeply flawed in its historical presentation, its comparative framework, and the relentless didacticism of its mistaken conclusions.
The film's main issue seems to be the source material's main issue: it asserts that US Jim Crow racism, the Nazi Holocaust, and caste in India are "all connected" because they are all "caste." However, these connections are not really properly theorized, nor are the significance of these connections to practical action raised except in some general love for each other we all ought to have. nstead, caste is a poetic metaphor for the writer to affirm a radical Enlightenment view of human equality. In place of materialist theorization we are told that caste is omnipresent but invisible, which raises the question of how Wilkerson knows what is and is not caste.
There are attempts to theorize race and caste, but they are very muddled. Caste is defined in an amorphous way, as the phenomenon of placing one group above another in a hierarchy. This doesn't do adequate justice to the distinction within 'caste' between occupational castes (which do not necessarily imply hierarchy) and the spiritual hierarchy of the 'varna' system in India, from which the whole notion of untouchability flows.
Moreover, race seems quite adequate to understanding social hierarchy and social ranking in the US, but Wilkerson's character continually disagrees with her interlocutors who assert this. At one point, a character responds to Wilkerson's presentation of her comparative research, "It's all racism." To which Wilkerson's character responds, "No, it is caste...Why is the same thing happening in India, they're all brown? How is is racist if they're all the same race?" The movie attempts to drive this point home by arguing that in Germany both oppressor and oppressed were of the same race, therefore racism can't explain it.
This is a very contradictory even silly thing to assert if one has read the scholarship on the Holocaust or social dynamics in India. The reality is that both race and caste are categories of practice that have been wrenched into serving as categories of academic analysis, and are thus equally problematic for doing global comparisons.
Wilkerson's assertion on the centrality of caste seems arbitrary. The movie then misses the opportunity to tell viewers why 'caste' is a more explanatory comparative term; we are expected to trust Wilkerson, without being given compelling reasons to adopt the new term. There is an attempt to do this--a discussion of various comparative pillars--on which more shortly.
The film asserts that "the Nazi blueprint for the extermination of millions of people was directly patterned after America's segregation and enslavement of black people", that "America taught the Nazis", and that although the outcomes were different, the function of caste in America and Germany is the same. There is some evidence that Nazis studied US racial dynamics and laws, but the assertion that they needed a pattern to borrow from the US to exterminate the Jews is an exaggeration in the service of the film's American exceptionalism (of the negative kind).
Wilkerson's character then goes to India, where she meets real life Dalit intellectual Suraj Yengde, playing himself. This part bore out the US-centrism of the movie, since Yengde's prominence as an intellectual is almost wholly related to his proximity to US higher education institutions. There is some exploration of the life of the Dalit intellectual and activisit B.R. Ambedkar which is very interesting and welcome. However, the movie misses an obvious contradiction of caste-as-universal-framework in discussing Ambedkar's education: he went to school with upper-caste children in a way that would have never occurred in the Jim Crow South.
Duvernay has Wilkerson's character explore several pillars of comparison, but these pillars reveal the dissimilarity of Jim Crow segregation, Nazi Germany, and caste in India. The first pillar, asserts Wilkerson's character, is control over marriage and mating in the form of endogamy. To me this is a bizarre way to begin. Notwithstanding prohibitions on intermarriage, none of these systems originate primarily to control marriage and mating strategies. Moreover endogamy as an informal institution is fairly widespread in all human communities; not all endogamy is casteist. Finally, while endogamy might apply to Jim Crow segregation, it certainly does not apply to US slavery, which can only be characterized as an institution for protecting endogamy if one ignores the history of the sexual dalliances of the master class with their slaves.
The second pillar is terror, but again one is hard-pressed to understand why race isn't just as applicable a term here, given the centrality of violence to racial hierarchy. The third pillar is purity and pollution. However, this is contradictory because endogamy as a strategy is often based in purity and pollution, making pillar one essentially a sub-pillar of pillar three.
Wilkerson's character asserts that the connective tissue making all three situations (US, Germany, India) caste is 'deference', which again seems to ignore the central role deference plays in racial and class schema.
Indeed, the movie has almost nothing to say about class, which was a central theme in the work of earlier African American scholars who used caste as a category of analysis, like the aforementioned Davis and Oliver C. Cox. Wilkerson is presented regularly hobnobbing with elites who praise her intellect and encourage her to continue writing.
In conclusion, though the aesthetics and emotional tone of the movie are impressive, its substance is not. The concept of caste is rendered definitionally incoherent by its use to connect the three cases. We don't really learn anything about the actual history of US, Germany, and India. Complexity is sacrificed to the simplicity of a single explanatory variable to create an emotionally satisfying framework. And Wilkerson is presented as creating a comparative theory of caste whole-cloth, with short shrift given to previous scholars who tested (and often rejected!) the comparison Wilkerson builds her book around.


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