Ava DuVernay confronts history of oppression in educational Origin
The first scene in writer/director Ava DuVernay’s new film, Origin, depicts the beginning of what would be a fatal night for Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchperson in 2012. This signals that the film will be a tough watch for any moviegoer, much less those who are tired of seeing Black trauma depicted on screen.
However, it soon becomes clear that the filmmaker behind Selma and the documentary 13th does not intend for the film to be just about the violence that Black people have suffered through the centuries. Taking inspiration from the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, DuVernay has made a unique film that fronts Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as a character who essentially takes viewers into the process of writing her book.
One part of the film’s story shows us Wilkerson’s personal life, married to Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal) and taking care of her ailing mother (Emily Yancy), among other things. But exposure to the 911 calls around Martin’s killing sends her down a path of exploring the history of oppression throughout the world. This research leads to the central thesis of the book that it is caste – a fixed social group into which an individual is born within a particular system of social stratification – and not racism that that is to blame for the societal ill.
What follows for viewers feels like a thoroughly engaging visual book report, one that acts almost like a documentary in parts, only with actual actors. Wilkerson travels the world to investigate other examples of oppression, including the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis and the ingrained caste system in India. These scenes are interspersed with scenes – also featuring actors – showing historical examples of those who tried to stand up to or expose the wrongness of the subjugation.
Every time Wilkerson has a conversation about her research, the debate between her and other people serves as a source of education for the audience, giving a perspective that never fails to enlighten. One sequence which demonstrates a linkage between American slavery and the Nazis' plans in Germany is particularly powerful. Because the talks are in a fiction film, though, they are full of the emotion that can come when people disagree or moments of clarity when a point fully lands.
The film balances Wilkerson’s explorations with her turbulent personal life, and DuVernay manages to weave together the two in a way that complement each other instead of being at odds. Her interracial relationship with Hamilton, the old-fashioned thinking of her mother, and the patient listening skills of her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) all inform her thoughts and her writing in one way or another.
Even though Ellis-Taylor’s role calls for her to be a lecturer and interviewer for much of the film, she still imbues the role with deep feeling. You can feel the pain of what her character is doing and experiencing through her soulful eyes. Bernthal, Nash-Betts, and Yancy all put in strong performances, as do actors with more limited screen time, including Finn Wittrock, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Blaaker, and Audra McDonald.
It is said of some documentaries that they make history come alive, and DuVernay accomplishes the same through a fictional lens in Origin. It offers the persuasive arguments that made Wilkerson’s 2020 book a bestseller alongside a story that resonates for the film’s characters and the world at large.
Origin is now playing in select theaters; it opens wide on January 26.