‘Origin’ Star Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor Talks The Caste System And Film’s Profound Message

2 Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal in ORIGIN_Photo Credits Atsushi Nishijima_Courtesy NEON
Source: Neon

Jan. 25 2024, Published 8:10 a.m. ET

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Adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the film, “Origin,” directed by award-winning Ava DuVernay, tells the story of journalist Isabel Wilkerson played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Motivated by the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, Wilkerson embarks on a global journey to unravel the underpinnings of societal injustices. 

Dissatisfied with the commonplace explanation of racism as the sole cause for the mistreatment of Black individuals, Wilkerson delves deeper. In Origin, she draws connections between the subjugation of Black people in America, the Dalits in India, and the Jews in Nazi Germany. Through her exploration, a compelling narrative emerges—one of a caste system that deems certain groups superior to others based on predefined characteristics. “Origin” weaves together these disparate stories to illuminate the common thread of caste as a pervasive force shaping destinies across diverse societies.

/// Aunjanue Ellis Taylor in ORIGIN_Photo Credits Atsushi Nishijima_Courtesy NEON x
Source: Neon
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Now playing in theaters, this film offers a fresh perspective on the oppression and dehumanization inherent in the framework of the caste system. Through a compelling narrative, it unravels how racism, sexism, and various forms of discrimination persist within a system that establishes a hierarchy, granting certain privileges to one group while withholding them from others. 

Ellis-Taylor delivers a poignant performance in the role of Isabel Wilkerson, whose character grapples with the profound loss of her husband and mother. As she navigates this personal grief, she tenaciously seeks to uncover the root cause of the societal inequalities that plague us.

Her Agenda talked with the award-winning actress about her role in the film and key takeaways she hopes viewers will carry after watching:

Her Agenda: How was the collaborative experience with Director Ava DuVernay in bringing the character of Isabel Wilkerson to life?

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: One of the first conversations I had with DuVernay was that she wanted to dramatize the interior life of a Black woman. I thought that was an exciting endeavor because I’m a book nerd. There’s a lot that goes on in my mind, but it’s a lot different from Isabel Wilkerson. She’s very measured in her responses, and as a refined woman, she strategizes her word use.

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She lives in that space of thinking because she researches and is constantly talking to people. Her thinking is foremost in her ability to do her job, but there’s a loneliness that is associated with that. So I had to lean into that, and Ms. DuVernay gave me the space to do that and trusted me to bring that part of her to life. I also pulled from my experiences and heartbreak to prepare for this role and bring Isabel Wilkerson’s character to life.

Her Agenda: What are your thoughts on the caste system and its basis in not only explaining the origins of racism, but other forms of discrimination?

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: The caste system was something that I learned in the process of doing the film, and I understood that race is a tool of caste. We think caste and race are interchangeable, but they are not. For example, in the inception of this country, you had people who wanted to establish power, and for them to establish power and maintain power, they had to create a lord caste system, folks who could be beneath them. They had to make them less than, to portray them as inferior. They had to choose something to make them inferior. They could have chosen anything, hand size, length of hair, but they chose skin color and that became codified in race. Wilkerson wants us to understand that race is a subset of case. When we are only fighting race, we miss the connections between ourselves and the people in India, and Nazi Germany. 

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Her Agenda: In one of the scenes, your character encounters a white individual wearing a MAGA hat and tries to connect with him on a personal level. What real-life impact do you think this will have when viewers see this, especially with what’s going on today?

/// Aunjanue Ellis Taylor in ORIGIN_Photo Credits Atsushi Nishijima_Courtesy NEON x
Source: Neon
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Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: The caste system established in this country is folks trying to maintain power through desperate means. What I mean by desperate is that they would elect a man who is a fraud and a liar, and tried to overturn the election not because of how good he is, but because he could maintain their power. We need to discuss people electing a man who goes against their best interests because they want to hold on to the power that they have in society. We go to the polls to make decisions that will make lives better for everyone, but other people go to the polls because they want to maintain personal power that is associated with skin color. They want to uphold the caste system. 

Her Agenda: Overall, what do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing this film? 

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: I think that the triumph of this film will be having more occasions to see people for who they are beyond the labels that are attached to them. We don’t want to just preach to the choir, we want to take this message to places that are not comfortable. What sets this film apart is that it gives viewers a new language to discuss the imbalance of power in this country. 

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