‘Origin’ Review: Ava DuVernay’s Fascinating New Film

DuVernay blends elements of documentary with her narrative film, making for an innovative, interesting, and engaging new movie.

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin. Atsushi Nishijima, Courtesy of NEON

It can feel like a critical cop out to say that a movie is good because it’s important, emphasizing a film’s potential cultural impact rather than its quality or its attention to new ideas. Plenty of movies are important, shining a light on underrepresented people and stories, but few are as revolutionary in scope, form, and purpose as Ava DuVernay’s uneven but powerful new film, Origin.

ORIGIN ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Emily Yancy
Running time: 135 mins.

The movie is based around the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, and it takes a unique approach to adapting nonfiction by putting the author’s writing process on screen. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor stars as Wilkerson, a journalist-turned-author who’s content to rest on the laurels of her first book while she cares for her aging mother (Emily Yancy) and enjoys time with her husband (Jon Bernthal) and cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts). But when a former coworker pressures her to write about the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, she heads down a path of research and discovery to explore what underlies racism on a global scale. As Isabel embarks on an investigation that will span several years and continents, she must also contend with loss in her own life.

Origin is at its best when it shows Isabel in her academic element—no film has ever made the case for libraries, museums and monuments quite like this one. DuVernay’s skill in presenting dense histories in watchable ways is well established, in both narrative films (Selma and When They See Us) and documentaries. Origin stands as a blend of the two genres: it tells the story of how Isabel Wilkerson came to write this book, but the movie also delivers the book’s thesis and the research that went into it via recordings and reenactments. When Isabel makes a fellow scholar translate a transcript of Nazi leaders referencing Jim Crow laws, when Martin Luther King Jr.’s article on the Indian caste system in Ebony is quoted, DuVernay lays the groundwork for Wilkerson’s argument as much as the author’s own personal experience coming up with it.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson in Origin. Atsushi Nishijima, Courtesy of NEON

DuVernay is not afraid to get into complexities, and Origin is better for it. There are times when Ellis-Taylor’s Isabel gets a little too excited and intellectual for the lay people around her, but DuVernay’s deftly defined visual language closes that gap. The editing is superb, with stories and strands from the 20th century American South, Germany, and India tying together seamlessly. It isn’t just an academic exercise, though—DuVernay mines all of these situations for their humanity (or lack thereof) and crafts emotionally eviscerating sequences. Towards the end Isabel delivers a monologue on the process of dehumanization that plays over some of the most harrowing images put on film. The dread and abject horror that DuVernay evokes from history, both recent and long past, is incredibly effective.

So much of Origin resonates on a profound, global level as it ties together centuries of oppression, but the movie stumbles when it tries to go smaller. Isabel’s painful losses and grief are shown through countless montages and flashbacks, which aren’t enough to truly dig into the character. Ellis-Taylor does admirably in these moments but her character’s personal history is collapsed into only a few full-length scenes, which pale in comparison to the film’s grander aims.

Regardless, DuVernay puts together a compelling argument and explanation surrounding Isabel Wilkerson’s book, and Ellis-Taylor delivers the author’s points with urgency and verve. Yes, Origin is important—but there’s more to it than that.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Origin’ Review: Ava DuVernay’s Fascinating New Film