(director/writer: Ava DuVernay; screenwriter: based on the book “Caste: The Origin of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson; cinematographer: Matthew J. Lloyd; editor: Spencer Averick; music: Kris Bowers; cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (Isabel Wilkerson), Jon Bernthal (Brett Hamilton), Niecy Nash-Betts (Marion Wilkerson), Vera Farmiga (Kate), Audra McDonald (Miss Hale), Nick Offerman (Amari Selvan), Blair Underwood (Dave the Plumber), Connie Nielsen (Sabine), Emily Yancy (Ruby Wilkerson), Jasmine Cephas-Jones (Elizabeth Davis), Finn Wittock (August Landmesser), Victoria Pedretti (Irma Eckler), Isha Blaaker (Allison Davis), Myles Frost (Trayvon Martin); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Paul Garnes, Ava DuVernay; Neon; 2023)

“Maybe should have been a documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time”/”Middle of Nowhere”) is the writer and director of this scholarly work that maybe should have been a documentary, as it’s unable to smoothly blend together a narrative of melodrama and academics.

The earnest film is based on the bestselling 2020 book “Caste: The Origin of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson ((Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), the book that made it possible for her to be the only African American to win a Pulitzer prize for journalism.

The challenging film of ideas invites us to make comparisons between India (relating its bias to the Dalit “untouchables” in the caste system), Nazi Germany (in the way the Holocaust discriminated against outcasts like the Jews) and America (its slavery and inequality that made Blacks feel less human than whites). Wilkerson believes racism can best be explored as a caste system that explains in more depth why people are debased and targeted as inferior. Thereby Wilkerson uses India’s caste system to advance her theory that racism can be more fully understood by studying the caste system.

After the senseless killing in Florida of the Black man Trayvon Martin in 2012, for being in the wrong neighborhood, Wilkerson expanded her theory about racism to include the caste system.

Wilkerson thinks it’s not likely that racism alone is enough to determine our wide separations in society.

She eagerly tells her editor (Blair Underwood) that  “Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient.” And afterwards tells her sister (Niecy Nash-Betts): “We have to consider oppression in a way that does not centralize race.”

I found the experimental film engrossing but flawed when not attaching itself directly to the ideas in Wilkerson’s book. Nevertheless I found the dramatization emotionally potent, especially when the journalist is pained learning she lost the ones she loves so much like her 46-year-old white husband (Jon Bernthal) due to a brain tumor, her mother (Emily Yancy) and sister, while writing this serious book about the subject of racism that the world uses for its answers about why people are treated negatively.

Its re-enactments were supported by good acting. Though not entertaining, its ideas put forth were stimulating. At least, I found its debatable points for a way to deal with a divided world that is filled at tines with more hate than love worth having.    

It played at the Venice Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 12/6/2023  GRADE: B-