When Ava DuVernay decided to tackle Nazi book burnings for her upcoming film “Origin,” the filmmaker didn’t want to re-create the event in a Hollywood backlot — she chose to film in the exact location in Germany where the actual events took place in 1933.
“There’s a square called Bebelplatz where the books were actually — there were tens of thousands of books — that were burned,” DuVernay said during a spotlight conversation for TheWrap’s Power Women Summit on Tuesday, which was moderated by editor in chief and TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman. “Anything that was talking about freedom, basically injustice, all of that stuff was burned.”
The director said the filming plan involved using a few thousand extras and the flying of Nazi swastikas on German soil (which is usually illegal), and she told German authorities “we’re going to light a big fire and burn some books, and they said ‘Yes.’” The lesson, DuVernay said: “Don’t be afraid to ask. Be prepared to talk about why and show the plan.”
In Berlin on May 10, 1933, the German Student Union organized book burnings. Some 40,000 people crowded into the Bebelplatz square as German students wielded burning torches to create a massive bonfire of books. A memorial marks the spot today.
The book-burning scene was part of DuVernay’s ambitious “Origin,” a film inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 New York Times bestseller book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Over 37 days, DuVernay’s production team traveled to three different countries — India, Germany and southern region of the United States — to capture the story of how each society created an underclass that was abused, enslaved or exterminated.
When Hollywood studios passed on the project, DuVernay turned to private financing, ultimately securing backing from the Ford Foundation, and from billionaire philanthropists Laurene Powell Jobs at Emerson Collective and Melinda Gates of Pivotal Ventures.
“We really just focused on not spending a year talking around town and pitching everyone…and getting turned down,” DuVernay said. ”We just thought ahead and raised the money on our own.”
She initially pitched Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, on a film exploring “the inequities of society.” After he agreed, she found “the courage to call other people who were like-minded” like Powell Jobs and Gates.
The film, which hits theaters in a limited release by Neon on Dec. 8 in New York and Los Angeles before a wide release on Jan. 19 made DuVernay the first Black American woman to have a film compete in the Venice Film Festival. And it is the first time that Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”), the actor in the main role, has had a starring role.
Despite landing an Oscar nomination for “King Richard,” Ellis’ lack of a leading role, until now, “really speaks to the ways in which women of a certain age, especially women of color of a certain age are relegated to very particular supporting parts of our industry,” DuVernay said. “So I’m proud that she took the mantle to get that baton.”
“Origin,” which was both written and directed by DuVernay, details the life and work of Wilkerson as she was developing and writing “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents.” In the book, Wilkerson poses the idea that caste and race aren’t synonymous or “mutually exclusive.” However, she states that the “two can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other.”
DuVernay noted Tuesday that “Caste,” which was published in 2020, is banned in some states. The book was banned in Texas in 2022 citing graphic content not suitable for young children.
In addition to Germany, DuVernay’s film centers on the lowest caste in India, the Dalit people , and the American south, where she recreated the Jim Crow era from the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to Ellis, the film features a large cast of acclaimed actors, including Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Audra McDonald and Nick Offerman. Offerman plays a MAGA-hat wearing plumber, while Bernthal plays Wilkerson’s husband Brett.
DuVernay said she tried not to allow the emotion of the stories that “Origin” tells to bleed onto the set. “I don’t get emotional when I shoot” she said. “I get emotional when I write… on the set I am Darth Vader…Then I cry again when I get in the editing room.”
The director said she hopes “Origin” sparks a need in people to be more proactive about seeking justice for oppressed people.
“It’s not enough for us anymore to talk or comment on a post,” DuVernay said. “We must step up and help the people who need us, and there’s always someone in need.”
Watch the full interview above.
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