Opinion: 'The Original' brilliantly exposes the class system in America. Here's how we tear it down

Editor's note: Keith Magee is Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor in Cultural Justice At University College London's Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the author ofProphetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion, and Politics“. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. Reads More opinion On CNN.


In a week when he is the Republican Party's presidential nominee Ron DeSantis said in a CNN town hall: “The United States is not a racist country” and his rival Nikki Haley told Fox News“We've Never Been a Racist Country,” the release of “Origin” couldn't be more timely.

Aaron Dunworth

Keith Magee

Written and directed by the exceptionally talented Ava DuVernay, the film is a brilliant adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson's best-selling book “Class: The Origins of Our Discontent“— unflinchingly demonstrates that the United States is indeed a racist country, and has been so since its inception.

This racism is underpinned by what Wilkerson refers to as a caste system that is very effective in maintaining white dominance over everyone else, which the Nazis inspired. Social class, Wilkerson says, is the system that creates oppression.

What Wilkerson refers to in her book as the “false race god” was invented by slave-owning European colonists as a convenient way to identify at a glance who belonged to what class—and who belonged to whom.

The movie “Original” Which opened in wide release on Friday, will leave no American viewer in any doubt that they still live under a system entirely designed to manufacture, justify, codify and perpetuate hatred based on skin color.

By boldly choosing to turn Wilkerson's nonfiction book into an autobiographical drama, DuVernay focuses on the writer's journey. Wilkerson struggles to cope with a personal tragedy, and is horrified by the sound of a 911 call that was recorded. The killing of Trayvon Martin He feels compelled to investigate what lies behind racism.

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We follow Wilkerson's travels as she dissects caste, comparing and relating its devastating impact on those it places at the bottom of the social hierarchy: Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) in India, Jews in Nazi Germany, and blacks in the United States.

Allowing her to be the heroine of the film helps enhance the film's narrative. By painting powerful portraits of key historical moments and present-day encounters, DuVernay tells Wilkerson's story with honesty, while the author's on-screen character, portrayed by Aungano Ellis-Taylor, tells the story of our country's flawed foundations.

With its central, no-holds-barred account of the writer's journey, “The Original” reminds us of the gratitude we owe to Wilkerson and others before her—including Webb DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr.—who not only live with the world. The weight of racial injustice themselves but they make an effort to understand and expose our collective trauma. DuVernay says ideas matter. They don't just pop up out of nowhere. This is a personal matter.

And let's face it: We rarely see a successful black female intellectual as the main character in a movie. Ellis Taylor He is mesmerizing in the role of Isabelle, portraying her as driven, brilliant and generous while accurately portraying the depths of her grief and her immense capacity for love.

We watch Isabelle explore Germany's poignant memorials to Jewish Holocaust victims, and in one scene she discusses how successful postwar Germany has been in condemning its class system 12 years into the past. But the United States is not Germany. Here, the battle to overcome hundreds of years of racial oppression requires generational endurance.

However, the efforts made to In memorial of Victims of racial hatred in the United States are vital and gaining ground. Films like this play a crucial role in helping Americans confront their history. But we must do more than simply recognize and honor the dead. We need to free the living and their descendants.

And, of course, we must continue to fight to dismantle systemic racism—what Wilkerson refers to in her book as the “infrastructure” of social class. However, the unjustified legalization has created hatred deeply ingrained within society enough to outlast mere legal reforms.

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These fragile, hard-won civil rights gains have not yet protected black Americans and people of color from the widespread harms that stem from racial inequality, nor from the intolerable humiliation of being viewed as inherently inferior by many of their fellow citizens.

The concept of social class works by dehumanizing group members who occupy a subordinate position, making it easier for the dominant group to subjugate them. In a quietly important scene in “Origin,” a white, MAGA-hat-wearing plumber fixes Isabel’s flooded basement, and he initially callously dismisses her plight and her latest outburst. Hurt but undeterred, she wonders if his mother is still alive. In doing so, she touched his soul – suddenly he saw her as another human being.

“It is difficult to dehumanize one person whom you have had the opportunity to know. That is why people and groups who seek power and division are not interested in dehumanizing an individual. “It is better to attach the stigma, the stigma of contamination, to an entire group,” Wilkerson tells us in “Social Class.” “And that's why I believe empathy is the real key to overcoming inequality in the United States — we must rise above the invisible constraints imposed by social class, and simply get to know each other.

But the false social construction of race is an obstacle: it tricks us into assuming that we cannot understand each other. It prevents us from seeing and rejoicing in our common humanity. If we are to succeed in rehumanizing people who have been dehumanized for centuries, we as a nation must first dismantle race itself.

I am not suggesting that we seek to erase or deny differences, quite the opposite. Culture, ethnicity and heritage are real and precious, and should be cherished. Our rich diversity, in all its forms, should be understood as something to be appreciated.

I know it will take a long time to unpack the race. However, there are reasons for optimism. Among black Americans, attitudes toward race are evolving. Although most black adults in the United States still see their racial identity as existing Important or very important In terms of how they think about themselves, young African Americans are less likely to say so than their older peers. I suspect this trend will continue, as identity becomes an increasingly complex mix of factors, including ancestry, economic status, faith, and gender.

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At the same time, the racial makeup of the United States is changing. According to the 2020 Census data The percentage of people who identify as non-Hispanic white is declining. The good news is that most Americans I don't think it actually matters A majority of adults (including 62% of whites) now see this demographic change as neither good nor bad for society. So, perhaps, as we begin to redefine and expand the intersectional communities to which we feel we belong, rather than the social classes to which we belong, perhaps race will gradually lose its hold on us.

I hope DuVernay's powerful film inspires everyone who watches it to challenge racism. I would urge you to go and see the movie “Origin,” and then walk out of that movie theater intending to hook up with someone who is not what you would consider your social class. Listen to their stories, learn about their aspirations, and find what you have in common.

If each of us does this on a regular basis, we will eventually be able to remove the corrupt social structures that have divided us for too long. Together, we can repair this country, just as Wilkerson repairs her old home in the film, by building new foundations based on true equality, compassion, and love.

It's not too late yet. Each of us has a piece of the game, and as Wilkerson points out, the caste system belittles us all, wherever we sit in its manufactured hierarchy.

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