The Oscar-nominated actress grew up in Mississippi, “a state that wants to redact people who look like me out of the history books,” she tells PEOPLE
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in.
The star of Ava DuVernay’s new film Origin grew up in Mississippi, a state whose history of slavery, segregation and anti-Black racism she knows all too well. “I come from a culture,” she tells PEOPLE, “that wants to redact people who look like me out of the history books.”
“My intention is to right that wrong,” says the 54-year-old King Richard Oscar nominee.
Case in point: she has protested use of the old Mississippi flag, which was until 2021 the only state flag in America to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into its design. In 2020 Mississippi governor Tate Reeves signed into law a bill that removed and replaced the symbol of white supremacy and Civil War glorification.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Ellis-Taylor recalled seeing the Confederate-emblazoned flag at a restaurant in Hattiesburg. “I wanted some catfish,” she told the outlet. But after asking the cashier about the retired flag’s presence, the actress said they “just tried to evade any culpability.”
“I said, ‘You have people in this restaurant now who are Black, who are eating your food, who are working in this restaurant, and you have the flag of the Confederacy, the flag of the Ku Klux Klan on your walls.’ And sitting under the flag were two Black men eating.”
She concluded: “I got up out of there and I had to get catfish from somewhere else.”
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Enduring symbols of discrimination like Confederate monuments are some of the many issues at stake in Origin, which is based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
As both director and adapter of the book, DuVernay combines the author’s findings about the fundamental similarities between American racism, Nazi persecution of European Jews and the Dalits of India with biographical elements of Wilkerson herself (played by the Gotham Award-nominated Ellis-Taylor), dramatizing the tragic events of her life.
“I think it is brave creatively, I think it is brave in its message, I think it confronts things in a way that is innovative,” Ellis-Taylor tells PEOPLE. “I wish everything I did was Origin, tried to achieve the heights that Origin tries to achieve.”
But, she adds with a laugh, "that's not the case." Making a living in Hollywood, she says, “Sometimes you’ve got to pay the rent, you’ve got to pay the mortgage — as Halle Berry so famously said, and Gabrielle Union co-signed on that.”
Origin is not only the rare leading role for Ellis-Taylor, who got her start in indie films and TV dramas, it’s also the closest she’s come to work that aligns with her personal values. “It is this time, this moment, that we have to look at what we are doing to each other,” she says.
“What's happening is not central, it's not just the American experience. It's an experience that is vast, it's wide, it's cross-cultural, it crosses time. We are connected to the Indian experience, we are connected to the Jewish experience, and the knowledge of that gives us more strength to fight those forces that would keep those divisions in place.”
Ellis-Taylor doesn’t take it for granted that her movie pushes against such divisions. Wilkerson, she says, “is a builder of bridges, of tearing down these social divisions that are so fraudulent and stupid.”
Confronting and discussing discrimination allows audiences “to build bridges between each other,” she adds.
“I feel like books like Caste, films like Origin, invite us to — whether you agree with it or you don't agree with it — to talk about it.”
DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor have talked about the film’s message at events and Q&As held by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Regina King and Ben Affleck. Following its Jan. 19 release, Origin earned a special honor, the Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment, from the Critics Choice Association.
Origin is in theaters now.
For more from Ellis-Taylor, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.
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Read the original article on People.