It would have been an obvious choice for Ava DuVernay to make a documentary out of Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. But the resulting drama, written and directed by DuVernay, is far more compelling, interrogating hugely complex concepts with consideration and surprisingly emotional gravity.
|ORIGIN ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Emily Yancy
Running time: 141 mins.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson, who published Caste in 2020. The widely-lauded book explored racism in the U.S. as a result of a caste system, comparable to those in India and Nazi Germany. It was—and remains—extraordinarily impactful, presenting ideas offered a new lens through which to view American history. In the film, DuVernay attaches the viewer to Isabel, a journalist deep in the throes of grief after the sudden loss of her husband (Jon Bernthal). She’s on the cusp of an idea, which is sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost), a young Black man who was just on his way home.
It’s almost never interesting to see a writer write onscreen. But DuVernay avoids the tediousness of that trope by instead inserting us into Isabel’s imagination. She uses evocative historical cutscenes to recreate moments and figures from Isabel’s extensive research, including a German man named August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock) who was punished by the Nazi’s for his relationship with a Jewish woman (Victoria Pedretti). Initially, Isabel’s connections seem tenuous—what does the Nazis’ treatment of Jewish people have to do with racism in America? But as she seeks to better understand, so do we, especially once the character travels to India to learn about the Dalits.
There is an inherent visual and emotional poetry to how DuVernay tells the story, shifting between Isabel’s immense grief to moments of suffering in the past and present due to inequality. She has an empathy for everyone, even those who disagree with Isabel, and it’s impossible to walk away from the film without wondering why some humans are treated so differently than others. Wilkerson posited a lot of answers to that question in her book, although the film isn’t necessarily doing the same. Instead, DuVernay presents some of the research and conclusions from Caste without judgement. Caste is one possibility for inequality, the film tells us, but the most important thing is that we acknowledge it’s an ever-present force that needs to be reckoned with.
DuVernay was initially meant to make Origin for Netflix, but after the streamer dropped the project she struggled to find a new studio. She prevailed and got it made anyway, but the film has oddly been ignored during the current awards season push. It’s unfortunate because Ellis-Taylor’s performance is beautiful, imbued with an emotional heft that is palpable through the screen. Niecy Nash-Betts, who plays Isabel’s cousin and confident, is quietly arresting, as is Bernthal, who scenes are—by design—far too few. The film embraces a tangible intimacy and a broad scope with ambition, and it largely works. It may make some viewers uncomfortable or frustrated, but isn’t that the point? Although Origin certainly could have been a documentary, DuVernay’s approach is far more interesting and moving.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.