When is the right time to talk about race? Not just about racism, but what the term even means. How did it begin and how can it be ended?
These are just a few questions tacked by Ava DuVernay’s Origin. Starring Anjanue Ellis as Isabel Wilkerson, the real-life journalist and cultural anthropologist, the film delves into the history of a system where one group of people is devalued under another. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which inspired the film.
Isabel enters on her way to present a passage from her last book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The novel holds the distinction of the first Pulitzer Prize won by an African American in journalism. It’s an interesting irony that the first time an African American earned recognition for writing about the caste systems that likely kept the record so devoid of diversity.
The Origin of Inspiration
Isabel is married to Brett (John Bernthal), and together they care for her mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy). When the time comes, they move Ruby into an assisted living facility, much to the reluctance of Isabel. While Isabel tries to juggle her life, the events of the first scenes of the movie – the last moments of Trayvon Martin’s (Myles Frost) shortened life – begin to intersect. Fellow journalist Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood) asks her to write a piece about Trayvon. Isabel hesitates because the incident only made her ask questions like, Why does a Latino man deputize himself to shoot a Black man in an all-white community? and she was much more interested in answers.
Selvan challenges Isabel to listen to the 911 tapes of Trayvon’s murder and then write out the many questions she has. Soon, the story turns into a book that shows connections of caste oppression linked between Isabel’s interracial relationship with Brett, American slavery and racism, Axis Germany, and the Dalit caste in India.
As a film, Origin functions as a history lecture wrapped in a narrative. This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or eye-opening. Viewers see the intersectionalities of Isabel’s life and how they shape her, but don’t define her. While she grapples with great loss and sudden responsibility, she also reacts to the idea of constantly being put in a box based on factors completely out of her control. Racism is a visual byproduct of caste, which is mostly invisible, though it has far-reaching effects.
Isabel rallies and begins researching different caste systems around the world. In each instance, DuVernay introduces the audience to a group of people who play an instrumental role in inspiring Isabel’s study.
In Germany, there’s a photo taken at a German factory where every person is doing the “Heil Hitler” salute except for one man. This man was believed to be August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), who broke the cardinal rule of white supremacy not only by refusing to salute but by falling in love with Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti), a Jewish woman.
In India, Isabel is introduced to Dalit rights leader and creator of the Indian constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar passed away in 1956, but there are several statues of him throughout the country. Dr. Surah Milind who plays himself in the film, acts as Isabel's guide.
In America, we learn of the social experiment conducted by a Black couple, Allison Davis (Isha Blaaker) and Elizabeth Davis (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), and a white couple, Burleigh (Matthew Zuk) and Mary Gardner (Hannah Pniewski), in Natchez, MS. The fact that the group all taught at academic colleagues had to be played down for the individual couples to live peacefully. There’s a stunning shot where we see firsthand the difference in attitude when the sheriff drives through the white neighborhood and then through the Black one. It goes to show the methodical nature of racism and how, at its core, it’s really just a byproduct or tool of caste.
The Origin of Representation
Ava DuVernay’s style always carries a sheen of prestige and importance. Even the family-friendly A Wrinkle in Time touted Oprah Winfrey and held an underlying message of young girls of color in a world not wholly accepting of them. In projects like Queen Sugar and Selma, DuVernay gives dignity to Black bodies, whether through lighting or angle. She understands how Black actors have been shortchanged in the past and fixes it to reflect the true reality.
As an actress, Aunjanue Ellis always disappears into a role. She’s accessible and down to earth while naturally holding a world-weary gravitas. This isn’t to say she’s misanthropic, but she portrays a very grounded view of what’s good in the world and what’s not. It’s not an easy task to balance the identities in a way that shows authenticity, but Ellis can cry in one moment and laugh in the next, and the audience feels every emotion and shift.
Origin relies on that trait to work as a film. During a conversation in Germany with Sabine (Connie Nielsen), Sabine posits that while horrific, American slavery cannot be compared to the Holocaust. Emotions swirl behind Ellis’s eyes as she works to fight past her defensiveness and provide coherent discourse. Later, she’s on the phone with her cousin, Marion (the always delightful Niecy Nash-Betts), who says she would have had words for the woman. Isabel says, “Oh I had words, I had lots of words!” but knew it wasn’t the time or place. It’s a predicament that many viewers have been through at some level, and it makes the moment so personal and touching.
Nash-Betts gives a sublime performance as the supportive though physically distant cousin who tries to console Isabel. She works in concert with the fabulous Audra McDonald, playing a character named “Miss Hale.” Her experience with the name not only adds some of the more entertaining scenes in the film but also gives Isabel even more insight into the true origins of caste.
As a biopic, it’s hard to argue with the true content of the film, given that the real Isabel studied this subject and how it truly affected her. During the film, when a new idea was introduced, I found myself full of what-ifs. What happens to a created community if caste becomes dismantled? How do people appreciate a created culture without giving way to prejudice? Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more imagination given to these thoughts, but that’s not what this film is about, and that’s okay.
DuVernay packed a lot into the screenplay–a remarkable feat with a runtime at just over two hours. Origin is not about a happy ending but the award after a life’s work. Awards-wise, this is a perfect film to showcase DuVernay, and I predict a lot of movement, specifically with the Indie Awards, and the NAACP Image Awards. There is a possibility for Ellis to receive nominations and Nash-Betts, but really, it’s the story that deserves recognition.
Score: 9/10 SPECS
Origin will have a limited release December 9th, 2023, and will open in theaters wide January 19th, 2024.