Friday, January 19, 2024

Trying to understand oppression

 Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, should be digested, argued with, and discussed. 
   A highly regarded journalist who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson took on a monumental task. She sought a unifying theory to explain oppression, something that might, in her view, go deeper than racism, which has become a catch-all for all manner of issues -- from social slights to murder.
  Mixing personalized reporting and theoretical thinking, Wilkerson traveled to India and Germany to  examine the role caste played in creating brutally stratified social systems at various historical points. She also assayed the role caste continues to play in today's world.
  To call this a "big" inquiry understates the scope of Wilkerson’s thesis-building ambition. 
   How is any of this the basis for a movie? 
   Director Ava DuVernay answers the question by taking a stylistically eclectic approach while focusing  on Wilkerson's quest for answers.  
   For DuVernay, Wilkerson's book becomes a springboard for a cinematic essay that begins when an editor (Blair Underwood) asks Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) to look into the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin.
  Initially resistant, Wilkerson begins to search for something deeper, something that might recast (you'll pardon the pun) views about what we commonly refer to as "racism." 
   At a social gathering, Wilkerson describes "racism" as a default word that's starting to lose its meaning.
   She eventually concludes that caste better explains oppression. Why else would an all-white society such as Nazi Germany create a hierarchy in which Jews were demonized and murdered?
   Ellis-Taylor ably conveys the ceaseless drive that can push a journalist to dig deeper, the dissatisfaction that comes from suspecting that there's more to a story than meets even the intelligent eye.
  DuVernay rounds out the movie with an often sad personal dimension. While researching, Wilkerson deals with the death of both her husband (John Bernthal) and her mother (Emily Yancy). 
  The film uses Wilkerson’s relationship with a cousin (Niecy Nash) as a bridge to connect the theoretical and the practical, one of Wilkerson's strengths as a writer, to ground ideas in experiences that can be felt.
    That beloved cousin also dies while Wilkerson is working on her book, adding more grief  to a movie that’s overloaded with it. 
    While in Germany, Wilkerson learns that Nazi lawyers looked to Jim Crow to help design their campaign against Jews, presenting the information as we watch re-enactments of a book burning and a meeting of Nazi lawyers.
   In what I took as an important encounter, a German woman questions Wilkerson’s thesis about similarities between US and German history regarding slavery and the Holocaust, condemning both but insisting on their differences.
   The exchange is portrayed as an insult to the author rather than a valid intellectual challenge. I think that may have something to do with how the scene is played, but in a movie that's not afraid of talk, the discussion could have gone further.
    If you’re interested in this topic, you can read James Q. Whitman's Hitler's American Model (2017), a scholarly work that examines the extent to which Nazi lawyers studied Jim Crow laws.
    A digression? Maybe. But Origin also can be viewed as digressive. The pieces of DuVernay's jigsaw don't always fit neatly together, and the movie may be more successful as the story of a search for answers  than as an endorsement of any conclusions.
  At times, the film feels like a documentary, particularly when Wilkerson travels to India to learn about the country's Dalit population. She's looking for the ways caste connects oppressed populations in different countries.
  DuVernay also recounts the story of four anthropologists -- two black and two white -- who produced a landmark 1941 book (Deep South), a study of caste and class during the days of Jim Crow. 
   Origin sometimes threatens to become a CliffNotes version of Wilkerson’s book and Wilkerson can sound a bit didactic when she's expounding on the controlling web woven by caste. Blind acceptance of caste makes it seem as if it's part of the natural order, to paraphrase something she says at a gathering of friends and family.
    However you regard Wilkerson's encompassing idea -- which I think tends to go further than the specifics of her observations allow -- Origin stands as a work of telling detail and admirable intent: to provoke, illuminate, and encourage us to see and feel the world through Wilkerson's eyes -- and DuVernay's, as well.
     Judging by her work, I'd say Wilkerson isn't content to operate in default mode. Judging by  Origin, I'd say DuVernay isn't, either.


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