Some movies exist purely as entertainment. They want to let people shut their brains off, eat popcorn and merely unplug from reality for a bit. Some have higher aspirations. They want to impart knowledge or ask questions; make their audience contemplate things on their way out of the theater and potentially for a while afterward. Origin (adapted from the 2020 nonfiction book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson) is better described by the latter, but is difficult to classify. It has a narrative, yet it moves around it without a traditional arc.
Viewers who are used to mainstream storytelling styles will likely be frustrated. Writer/director Ava DuVernay uses her protagonist to deliver a message in what amounts to a long-form essay about the root cause of hatred, bigotry and oppression throughout the world, focusing on American slavery, the Holocaust and the degradation suffered by the Dalits in India.
There are characters, personalities, plot points/developments, but those serve as tools DuVernay utilizes to get her themes across. Origin (131 minutes, minus the end credits) is not an easy watch. It is, however, incredibly fascinating and endlessly compelling. As vital of an experience as it is, it may be even more valuable for the conversations it inspires. Calling something an important movie probably won’t get people to seek it out at a multiplex, though I truly hope people see this.
Isabel Wilkerson is a highly-respected author who is deeply affected after hearing the 911 calls of the Trayvon Martin murder. She believes “racism” is too limiting a term to explain why this happened and begins an intellectual journey to find a connection between various forms of subjugation.
Her exploration into this idea, and her crafting of the argument the book this is based on is centered around, is what Origin is actually about. The fact that DuVernay is able to make this consistently engaging is very impressive. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. The narrative clothesline it hangs on works well enough to feel like a story, even if it is still fairly clear while watching it that the story isn’t the point. DuVernay deftly mixes Wilkerson’s personal life and investigation into caste systems; first with her questions, then with her discoveries. Her travels to Germany and India feel almost like a documentary because they are more about her being there and learning about the history/culture than they are about some event that may occur.
This is a thoughtful, emotional, drama that is absolutely at its best when it allows its message to come organically out of the dialogue/performances, instead of forcing it upon the audience. A large part of the reason it lands so impactfully is due to Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson. Simply put, this is one of the most powerful performances of the year. Ellis-Taylor makes the vast majority of the screenplay’s points about caste and does so naturally. At all times, she is playing this passionate, brilliant, curious woman, who asks questions out of a deep desire to better understand the why of the world she was born into. She is always fully present with her scene partners, which definitely helps this material flow so well.
There is a scene at a family cookout where Isabel and her cousin, Marion (played very well by Niecy Nash-Betts), discuss the book Isabel is doing research for. Marion pushes Isabel to explain why the Trayvon Martin murder isn’t easily categorized as racism. Isabel responds by detailing the concept of caste and how it connects to other examples of oppression. In the moment, I was totally absorbed in her argument. It wasn’t until Origin was finished that I realized this speech was effectively Wilkerson’s (and Duvernay’s) thesis statement. That it doesn’t come off as preachy is a massive credit to the writing and both actresses.
Movies, well, all art, tend, intentionally or not, to direct their message at the people who already believe in it. That means the message stays in its bubble, the movie is praised by those on that side of the ideological spectrum and cruelly dismissed by those on the other. Origin isn’t perfect. It has a couple of similar speeches too many and at least two scenes that are too on-the-nose toward the subject matter. Yet that does not diminish its impact. This is a movie that should lead to introspection, regardless of your political affiliation. What Wilkerson is saying is against subjugation in any form and questions the way we speak about prejudice. Ava DuVernay has made a production that hopes for tolerance and understanding.
Come into Origin with an open mind. For me, it was enlightening, challenging and insightful. Who knows what it will be for you.
4½ out of 5
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson
Jon Bernthal as Brett Hamilton
Niecy Nash-Betts as Marion Wilkerson
Emily Yancy as Ruby Wilkerson
Written/Directed by Ava DuVernay