Is caste theory the real root of all racism? Hmm


A scene from Origin



Reviewed  by John Nathan

Diane Abbott and Whoopi Goldberg have doubted out loud that the persecution of Jews amounts to racism. Both have been strongly criticised for their comments. Yet they would be mistaken to take comfort from director Ava DuVernay’s biographical drama based on Pulitzer Prize-winning Isabel Wilkinson’s scholarly book.

For although it too suggests that racism was not the driving force behind the Holocaust it says the same about slavery too. And whatever the intentions of Abbott and Goldberg, they never seemed interested in uniting the Jewish and black experience of persecution.

On that level at least DuVernay’s movie closes the widening disconnect between two communities who were once very much on the same side when it came to fighting America’s greatest political struggle, that of civil rights for the country’s African American population.

The film ambitiously spans continents and much of the 20th century (including Nazi Germany) as it makes its case that three apparently unconnected communities — Jews, African Americans and India’s Dalits — have been subjugated by the societies in which they live not because of racism but because of a caste system.

DuVernay’s breakthrough in adapting Wilkinson’s academic, though very readable, tome into a movie was to make the author (played by the excellent Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) the star, and her life while she was writing the book the central drama.

It was a period powerfully informed by grief during which Wilkinson, lost both her mother who was African American and her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) who was white. The couple transcended a cornerstone of caste systems — a ban on interracial marriage.

The film opens with a harrowing recreation of the killing of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin who was shot and killed in 2012 by the Hispanic George Zimmerman in a white neighbourhood. Wilkinson sees something much more complicated at play than racism. By then she had already lectured on how a German shipbuilder refused to give the Nazi salute in the 1930 at the vessel’s launch because he was in love with a Jew.

To develop her caste theory she travels to Germany where she researches the Holocaust. In a Berlin library she finds that the framework with which Jew hatred was enshrined in Nazi law was inspired by American segregation laws. The flashback scene in which Nazi lawyers cooly discuss how to make law suitably murderous has a chilling resonance with the Nazi concentration camp commandant conference in Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning The Zone of Interest.

However, Wilkinson’s argument begins to fray in a tense dinner party scene where she and her German academic host disagree about whether the Holocaust and slavery are comparable. One is about subjugation the other annihilation argues the host. This puts Wilkinson off her stride.  But later she finds that the outcomes may be different but the origin (the film’s title) of the atrocities is the same.

The case for equivalency always feels shaky. Even more so when DeVernay supports Wilkinson’s argument by juxtaposing Holocaust imagery with Treyvon Martin’s death. Still, it is thrilling to see a thesis placed front and centre in major movie, even when it is not entirely convincing.

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