Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Ava DuVernay
prd Paul Garnes, Ava DuVernay
with Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Emily Yancy, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Connie Nielsen, Blair Underwood, Suraj Yengde, Finn Wittrock, Victoria Pedretti, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Blaaker
release US 8.Dec.23
23/US Neon 2h15

nash-betts offerman mcdonald

Is it streaming?

bernthal and ellis-taylor
Inspired by Isabel Wilkerson's prize-winning nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the divisions in American society by recounting Isabel's own journey. It's a huge topic, and the dialog is a torrent of pointed comments. Each element is fascinating and, as the pieces fit together into a moving bigger picture, the implications are staggering. This more than makes up for the film's persistent messaging.
As her mother (Yancy) moves into a nursing home, journalist Isabel (Ellis-Taylor) is exploring racial issues through history, finding parallels between the United States and more overtly class-based cultures. Then an editor (Underwood) asks her to look into the emerging story about the murder of Trayvon Martin. So she starts investigating what connects a variety of situations that are shaking the nation's life, while dealing with intense personal losses in her own family. She also travels to Berlin and India and finds some startling links in the way humanity draws devastating lines in society.
Along the way, various events provide keys to the larger context. In the 1930s, African-American researchers Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Blaaker and Jones) left an increasingly tense Germany to secretly study the social hierarchy the Deep South. In India, Isabel learns about how institutional discrimination and violence have kept the caste system alive, despite being banned by law. Recounting the story of August (Wittrock), who during WWII refused to salute Hitler due to his love for his Jewish girlfriend Irma (Pedretti), Isabel asks, "What would it mean to be him today?"

Ellis-Taylor nicely plays Isabel's curious, thoughtful approach, pursuing an idea others struggle to understand. (At one point she pulls out a white board.) She has strong chemistry with Bernthal as her husband, especially in charming how-they-met flashbacks. And Nash-Betts also has a vivid ongoing presence as Isabel's talkative cousin. Others turn up in often heart-stopping moments, and the honest nature of each performance adds to the film's impact, even if it seems that each scene carries a mini-sermon.

DuVernay smoothly cuts between past and present, encompassing cultures and myths. Her artful direction places the issue in everyday human experience while never dumbing it down. So it's terrifying to see such clear parallels between Nazi Germany and today's rise of right-wing politics. Indeed, Isabel draws direct lines between America, Germany and India, as fear has been stoked using nameless, faceless scapegoats. This is about oppression based on social strata rather than race; suppressing empathy allows groups to be dehumanised and dominated. Thankfully, film also finds hope in the human spirit.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 5.Dec.23

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall