As American journalist Isabel Wilkerson bids farewell to yet another family member, concluding a string of unimaginable losses, she tells her cousin Marion to watch over her. Even though she won’t be visible any longer, her presence will still be felt because there is “more to life than what you can see.” This heart-rending notion serves as the sentimental nucleus of Origin, writer-director Ava DuVernay’s first narrative feature film in five years after A Wrinkle in Time. The filmmaker behind notable historical projects such as Selma, When They See Us, and 13th now avidly explores the experiences of African-American diaspora. Gorgeously shot on film, Origin investigates this topic while also branching out into more expansive intricacies and additional communities, transporting the audience back and forth in time.
Ava DuVernay’s latest is based on Isabel Wilkerson’s capacious 2020 nonfiction book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which takes place amidst a summer of human rights activism in response to the ongoing fatal discrimination that surges through both the past and present tenses of America. The novel serves as a deep dive into caste systems and their effects on societies spanning three different continents; the United States, Nazi Germany, and India. Caste can be defined as societies and cultures that are divided into hereditary classes, wherein people inherit their privileges and status.
While the outcomes caused by the consequences of caste vary, the dehumanization techniques designed to control and perpetuate inferiority-based factors such as race, religion, and social class are transparently similar. Origin fuses informative commentary on the pillars of caste systems, which were first defined by the author herself, with specific examples of affected individuals in each of the three societies. This includes the death of American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 as well as the personal tragedies faced by Wilkinson during the writing process of her sophomore book.
Whether it be her writing or personal life, Origin keeps Isabel Wilkerson consistently at the forefront of the narrative. Aunjanue Ellis, who recently earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Serna and Venus Williams’ mother in King Richard, takes on the prodigious role. When we first find her, Isabel and her husband Brett, played by Punisher star Jon Bernthal, are relocating her deteriorating mother into a retirement home. Tragedy strikes again when another death in the family occurs out of the blue just months later. Initially paralyzed by grief, Wilkinson eventually finds solace in working on her next book. This takes her on a physical and emotional journey as she ventures abroad seeking to learn more about caste systems.
Aunjanue Ellis’ performance as Isabel Wilkerson is perhaps a bit more muted than it could have been at times but remains impactful nonetheless. The jam-packed supporting cast includes the likes of Nick Offerman, Vera Farmiga, Niecy Nash-Betts, Connie Nielsen, and Tony-winner Audra McDonald, all of whom effortlessly bounce off Ellis. As human beings, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of our history, and it is because of this that we are often unable to comprehend the full picture. Ava DuVernay’s screenplay is aware of this complication and acknowledges that at first glance, it could seem far-fetched that these harrowing tragedies from an assortment of cultures have so much in common.
To combat this, Origin takes its time breaking down each individual example of caste in order to handle layered issues dutifully. Even though this can make DuVernay’s film feel slightly bloated at times, it ensures that the story is well-rounded and comprehensive at all times. On the other hand, Origin saves plenty of time by assuming the intelligence of its audience rather than feeling the need to over-explain notions of racism that should be crystal clear in this day and age. DuVernay masterfully crafts evocative dialogue and effective voice-over narration, which comes off as Isabel Wilkerson reading her own book. The film’s unorthodox narrative for a biographical/historical piece surprisingly works well and is rich in metaphorical connotation.
Origin reaches an extremely emotional climax in its final fifteen minutes, recalling a story from artist Alfred L. Bright’s childhood. Supported by a delicate and emotive score from Bridgerton composer Kris Bowers, we bear witness to a celebratory pool day following a little league championship, where at just nine years old, Bright was forced to sit on the other side of a wire fence as lifeguards insist they would have to decontaminate the pool if his skin were to touch the water. A scene so quiet proves to be exceedingly gut-wrenching, which is only the latest testament to Ava DuVernay’s powerful capabilities as a storyteller.
Ava DuVernay’s Origin will undoubtedly inspire wilful ignorance from some viewers, simply because that is the reality of the world we live in. People take stories from the past as lectures and feel as though because they played no physical part in history, we should not learn from the egregious mistakes of the past. It is possible that Origin could have functioned better as a documentary, this is true. However, the decision to explore not only the contents of the source material but also Wilkerson’s personal story in this narrative format adds fascinating subtext about generational guilt and the responsibilities to continue fighting for justice against the caste systems that still plague the world. Origin is a time-defying tale of the unfortunate realities of life and our human nature.