Origin (2023)

‘Origin’ casts caste as the root of all evil

After stumbling with the disastrous “A Wrinkle in Time,” Ava DuVernay recovers nicely with her thought-provoking “Origin,” an ambitious adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s controversial dissertation, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.” It sounds dry and academical, I know. But in reality, “Origin” is brimming with insight and emotion, qualities brought vividly to life by its wonderfully expressive star, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.

Both intimate and epic, “Origin” provides Ellis-Taylor (“King Richard”) with the starring role she’s so long deserved. And she nails it, infusing her symbiotic portrayal of Wilkerson with strength and vulnerability as she counters almost unbearable grief by immersing herself in researching and writing the Pulitzer-winning “Caste.” It’s an odyssey spanning time and continents, a quest to validate her theory that racism may be rooted more deeply in hierarchy than skin color.

Although it’s structured like a procedural, with Wilkerson poring over texts, conducting interviews and visiting exotic locales, DuVernay never loses sight of the pent-up passion driving Wilkerson. It’s an infectious and absorbing account, even when DuVernay struggles to meld the movie’s desperate hypothesis seeking to draw a link between the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and India’s notorious caste system.

Lucky for her she has Ellis-Taylor to supply the connective tissue. Still, “Origin” cannot escape its episodic structure, often feeling more like a collection of scenes than a cohesive whole. DuVernay’s script is literally all over the map, ricocheting from the American South to Nazi Germany to Delhi, India, necessitating an assemblage of flashbacks and embedments. All this intermixed with familial crises involving a trio of devastating deaths. Yet, it’s these tragedies that draw us even closer to Wilkerson, as her work becomes her solace. It’s an admirable turn by Ellis-Taylor and perfectly complements the film’s profile of courage and perseverance.

The one element DuVernay can’t quite square is why Wilkerson – a wealthy, highly respected paragon – defies the contention that Blacks are relegated to the lower rungs of caste in America. But there’s no doubt, Wilkerson is onto something, although I’m sure many Blacks and Jews might take exception to equating subjugation with annihilation.

It’s also a bit of a gamble by DuVernay to opt for a narrative approach to Wilkerson’s book, as you can’t help wondering if it might have been more effective as a documentary. As a result, DuVernay occasionally backs herself into a corner in an attempt to humanize the story. Yes, the tone is less clinical, but it comes across a bit too maudlin at times.

But the power of what we witness is indisputable, particularly the final 30 minutes when it’s impossible not to feel shattered by – and ashamed of – the centuries of oppression visited upon even the most susceptible victims of racism – children. Speaking of which, what a daring choice by DuVernay to open and close her film with the execution of Trayvon Martin, an innocent teenager gunned down by crazed white supremacist George Zimmerman.

Martin is a stepping stone to Wilkerson’s research, but it’s not a subject she feels comfortable exploring. “I don’t write questions; I write answers,” she tells an editor (Blair Underwood) insisting she listen to the horrific 911 tapes and then write about Martin. What changes her mind are the imminent deaths of her beloved husband, Brett (an excellent Jon Bernthal, also from “King Richard”), and elderly mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy). For Wilkerson, the project is both an escape and a way of honoring their memory.

It’s an obvious play for sympathy, but it works, as does Wilkerson’s close relationship with her cancer-stricken cousin, Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts). More of them would have been preferable to disjointed flashbacks to Nazi Germany featuring a Hitler disciple (Finn Wittrock) and his Jewish girlfriend (Victoria Pedretti); and the Deep South, where two couples, one white (Matthew Zuk and Hannah Pniewski), one Black (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas Jones), assimilate into Jim Crow society in the 1940s as part of a risky research project. While compelling, these scenes unnecessarily slow the film’s momentum and distract from our involvement in Wilkerson and her exhaustive work.

You’re inspired just the same. Even if you disagree with Wilkerson’s assertion, it’s hard not to be fascinated by her arguments. Caste discrimination or racial prejudice? I think they walk hand in hand, and no matter the cause or the symptoms, the one thing we can all agree on is that the time has come for us to live as one.

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for violence, smoking, racism, language, disturbing images and thematic material

Cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald and Nick Offerman

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writer: Ava DuVernay

Runtime: 140 minutes

Grade: B

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