December 23, 2023 – The murder of Trayvon Martin and deaths and an author's close family deaths all galvanized her to write a book about how America's social classes are related to caste discrimination in India and the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ava DuVernay (“Selma” and “13th”) writes and directs this drama about the emotional and intellectual journey of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson as she researches her 2020 best-selling book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Her journey takes her to Germany and India, as well as a journey into Jim Crow territory, by way of the 1941 anthropological study, “Deep South” (which is dramatized in this movie) written by Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, who embedded themselves in a rural Mississippi town to secretly study its social structure.
Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor of “King Richard”) is approached by a publisher to write an article about the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. She declines the invitation, saying she is on hiatus from writing, but she agrees to listen to a recording of a 911 call related to the murder, and is traumatized and haunted by what she hears.
Later, Wilkerson's husband, Brett Hamilton (played by Jon Bernthal of “Ford v Ferrari”) suddenly dies. A devastated Wilkerson is soon rocked again by the death of her mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy of “Nine Months”). While clearing out her mother's house, she reads “Deep South” and is inspired to write her own book about America's own caste system.
Wilkerson's idea builds upon the thesis in “Deep South” that the Jim Crowe south had a caste system. Wilkerson likens the American caste system, with Blacks on the bottom and Whites on the top, and other ethnic and religious groups in between, to that of India. Caste is not necessarily related to racism, she argues. It can be quite independent of race. As proof, she argues that the caste system of Nazi Germany and India both operate independently of race, but are otherwise just like America's caste system. In India and in pre-war Germany, everyone is the same color. The so-called differences in classes are invented out of whole cloth.
The movie shows “Deep South” author Allison Davis (played by Isha Blaak) and his wife, Elizabeth (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) visiting Berlin, Germany in 1933 where they witness book burnings and anti-Jewish hysteria. As blacks, they are advised to leave. The movie includes a scene of Nazi officials deliberately using American Jim Crow laws as a guide for German laws segregating Jews, and forbidding them from marrying non-Jewish people. Also dramatized is the forbidden love affair of August Landmesser and Jewish Irma Eckler in Nazi Germany.
Wilkerson's idea of relating caste in America, India and Germany is rejected by intellectuals both in Germany, when she visits there, and in America. She also visits India, where her idea is accepted by some. She reads a speech once given in India by Martin Luther King, who was introduced as an “untouchable,” (a Dalit) the lowest rung of India's caste system. He accepts the designation and builds on it. She learns about a Dalit leader, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who helped write the Indian Constitution, and was a caste reformer. His statue must be protected from vandals by a cage.
Ambedkar “called caste the artificial chopping up of the population into fixed and definite units.” Arranged marriages are used to make sure the castes stay separate. That way, you always remain in the caste you are born into. While in India, Wilkerson is rocked by another personal loss, the death of her sister, Marion (Niecy Nash of “Uncorked”).
The movie is a brilliant exploration of both emotions and ideas, including the caste-supporting ideas of Endogamy (preventing marriage between castes, like the miscegenation laws in the U.S.) occupational hierarchy (restricting certain jobs to certain castes) heritability (such as laws against blacks inheriting property) and lastly, dehumanization.
Another dramatization features a young black little league player, Al Bright, who is forbidden to swim, or even touch the water in a swimming pool being used by his white teammates and other whites in 1951. Like the Dalits of India, the black boy is treated as unclean. Merely touching the water in the swimming pool would require it to be drained and disinfected.
DuVernay masterfully weaves these ideas together, collapsing multiple threads in a climactic scene where a German soldier executes a Jewish woman. When the gun is fired, executing the Jewish woman, a simultaneous gunshot kills Trayvon Martin.
Wilkerson's ideas are powerful, and they provide a clear way of making sense of today's divisive politics. The so-called Aryan “Master Race” idea imposed by Nazi Germany to be superior to all other races. In America, the same notion of White Supremacy still has wide influence. This is why the so-called “Tea Party” and “MAGA” Republicans sprang directly from the outrage of whites fearful of losing their top place in the castes, chafing under the rule of the first Black president, Barack Obama. It also explains why Obama was succeeded by a minority President, Donald Trump, who made it acceptable to be a white supremacist in America for the first time in years.
In 2017, Trump famously refused to condemn torchlight protesters wearing swastikas, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” just as he refused to condemn people storming the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2020 who were waving Confederate Battle Flags. Trump opened his 2016 campaign by slamming Spanish-speaking immigrants, depicting them as belonging to a lower caste, and blaming them for the nation's ills in much the same way Hitler demonized the Jews.
DuVernay says about 60 percent of this movie is not found in Wilkerson's book. The book is just a jumping off point for the movie. Major Hollywood studios passed on this controversial project, so DuVernay went the independent route. This film is being released by Neon. The hot button issues in this movie also mean that it will be largely ignored during awards season, but this is one of the best movies of the year. It rates an A.
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