DuVernay is the first African American woman to have a film in competition at Venice, and during our interview this week, she kept spotting and waving to colleagues who had helped realize her vision, including a fellow producer, Paul Garnes, and the cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd. “The whole team came!” she told me, beaming by the beach. “Because we’re indie, we used our miles.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
“Caste” came out in August 2020. What was going on in your life at that time?
It was the summer of George Floyd’s murder, and I was interrogating that in ways that were deeply personal. I had also just lost a loved one to Covid in the early, very scary time of Covid, which I think so many people have just forgotten about. But when you think of the spring and summer of 2020, it was shocking, it was frightening; people were dying alone in hospitals, which was the situation for my loved one. So when I read this book, I found it to have organizing principles to help me have something to anchor and hold onto as I thought about this crazy world we’re in.
Did the idea of an adaptation immediately present itself when you read it?
I have this really bad thing that I do with almost everything I read where I think, “Could this be a movie?” But on this one, I just thought, Well, this is not possible. It was so dense and full-bodied with ideas and there was no linear narrative. It was really the second time I read it that I started to see Isabel in the book. There are some stories she tells that she’s actually in, where I started to think, “Oh, wow, she’s the recurring character in it,” and that was the little seed of the idea.
Did Isabel take some convincing?
When I got on the phone with her and told her I wanted to do something, I remember her saying, “Would this be like ‘13TH,’ or a doc series?” She was just trying to figure it out. I said, “It’s a narrative film with actors, and the main character is someone who appears all throughout the book.” She said, “Oh, there’s not really anyone who’s all throughout the book,” and I said, “It’s you.” She got it, because she’s a storyteller. All of these stories and ideas and pieces need to be unified through a character that we root for, someone that we’re emotionally connected to.