Origin (2023, dir. Ava DuVernay)

by | Mar 10, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 141 mins

UK Distributor: Black Bear UK

UK Release Date: 8 March 2024

WHO’S IN ORIGIN?

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Emily Yancy, Finn Wittrock, Victoria Pedretti, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Blaaker, Connie Nielsen, Stephanie March, Myles Frost, Suraj Yengde, Donna Mills, Jordan Lloyd, Franz Hartwig, Daniel Lommatzsch, Gaurav J. Pathania

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Ava DuVernay (director, writer, producer), Paul Garnes (producer), Kris Bowers (composer), Matthew J. Lloyd (cinematographer), Spencer Averick (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Journalist Isabel Wilkerson (Ellis-Taylor) investigates an eye-opening phenomenon…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ORIGIN?

Released in 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests, Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents inspired readers to view racism and even the nature of hatred itself a little differently, as a product of hierarchal systems that have been in place for centuries, even millennia. The book is a fascinating read, with enough material that would make for an equally fascinating documentary.

Except, filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s adaptation, titled Origin, isn’t a documentary. Rather than giving Wilkerson’s book the factual treatment as she did with her powerful Oscar-nominated doc feature 13th, DuVernay has instead opted to go the full dramatization route like with Selma and Middle of Nowhere beforehand. It’s an ambitious approach, which feels appropriate given the wide-reaching scope of Wilkerson’s source material, though it runs the risk of becoming too much of a heavy-handed lecture for audiences that want a more entertaining experience.

The fact that Origin stays together as well as it does, though, is a testament to DuVernay’s dutiful direction and writing that adapts an immensely detailed non-fiction novel into a compelling, if not entirely engaging, narrative feature.

DuVernay’s film sets as its protagonist none other than Isabel Wilkerson herself (as played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who is approached shortly after the fatal shooting of young Black man Trayvon Martin to write an opinion piece on the racist incident. Wilkerson soon becomes fascinated with the idea that racism itself isn’t the only factor in Martin’s death or even any other similar incident, but rather is a symptom of the hierarchal caste system that separates social groups and fixates a number of restrictive rules for people within it, such as not being allowed to date or marry outside one’s group and forbidding interaction with anyone seen as culturally different.

From there, Origin charts Wilkerson’s personal journey as she interviews several subjects for her book, and travels around the world to Berlin and India to learn more about the caste systems in their respective countries, all while trying to find the link between them and the one that’s in place within the United States. Along the way, Wilkerson also experiences close loss, including her loving husband Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal) and her elderly mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) within months of each other, as well as scepticism from those unable to understand the logic behind her in-progress thesis, but she no less dedicates herself to finding the answers that could explain why racism and general bigotry persists in not just American society, but all societies across the world.

It is a film that requires a lot of thought and patience from the viewer, as DuVernay doubles down on delivering the information presented in Wilkerson’s book in ways that aren’t always easy to follow. Much of it is delivered in straightforward exposition, which feels appropriate for a film so steeped in facts and research, and as such it can be a dense viewing experience as it packs so much into its narrative that it can be difficult to keep up with it all. On top of the extensive research Wilkerson conducts throughout, as well as all the personal grievances that she is shown to experience, there are also numerous flashbacks to other related stories throughout history, such as an undercover investigation into American segregation, a romance between a Nazi party member and a Jewish woman, and the deeply upsetting story of young Al Bright, a Little League player who is denied entry to a swimming pool with his fellow teammates simply because he is Black. These are all pretty powerful as their own individual strands, and to DuVernay’s credit she does manage to sew them together well enough, but it can be quite overwhelming for an audience member expecting to see a more traditional dramatic structure.

There are also times when DuVernay allows Origin to become too on-the-nose with its efforts to convey its themes and subjects, which certainly get the point across but at the small cost of its subtlety. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that a film like this, which deals with incredibly vital social topics such as institutionalised racism and hierarchal systems of power, should absolutely be as clear as it can with what it’s trying to say, for that’s really the only way any of its important messages will get through to general viewers. However, when you factor in scenes of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s Wilkerson interacting with Nick Offerman wearing a MAGA hat for the entirety of his role, and an extended monologue that closes out the film and features apparitions of several historical figures we’ve seen throughout, Origin runs the risk of becoming so heavy-handed that it threatens to emotionally disconnect the viewer from the valid points that it’s trying to make.

DuVernay, however, maintains the dignity of both Wilkerson’s captivating findings and their vital effect on the world at large, though plentiful filmmaking that applies a naturalistic, even documentarian, vision to the writer’s complex journey. A fantastic lead performance by Ellis-Taylor also works wonders for the viewer’s ultimate engagement in the film’s narrative progress, as you truly feel her grief for the loved ones she loses along the way, as well as her passion for her deeply complex subject. It’s because the film is so well-made and phenomenally acted, with a standout monologue from Audra McDonald as an interviewee with a traumatic past, that it just about overcomes its dense execution to deliver an intellectual dramatization of the original book that hits enough points for it to land.

Could Origin have worked better as a documentary? Probably, but the fact that DuVernay is willing to go that extra route and turn an incredibly factual piece of literature into an engaging, if dense, narrative feature shows that she and Isabel Wilkerson have in common a keen sense of ambition, which is difficult to not admire.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Origin is an ambitious and often compelling dramatized adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction book, which packs a lot of information into its heavy-handed narrative that flows well enough under Ava DuVernay’s compassionate direction.

Three out of five stars

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