Ava DuVernay became a powerful cinematic voice on race relations in America with 2014’s Oscar winning film Selma, about the famous march in Alabama in 1964. With her latest film, Origin, she may well break a new glass ceiling and become the first Black woman ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. She delivers a vital experience at the movies only her eye could pull off.
The movie tells the story of a Pulitzer-winning writer, Isabel Wilkerson (a stupendous Aunjanue Ellis), while she copes with grief and writes an important sociological tome called Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. It ends up packing a powerful one-two punch, a touching and personal story about loss and a sweeping and ambitious thesis about some of the most pressing issues of the time.
When Origin opens, we see a depiction of Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida in 2012. An activist lawyer focused on gaining notoriety for the case approaches Wilkerson to gauge her interest in writing a long-form article about the killing and what it means for racial relations in America. Wilkerson is struggling with writer’s block as she considers a project to follow-up her landmark novel about a great racial migration in America in the 1920s. Her loving husband Brett, played by a moving Jon Bernthal in his most serious role to date, is supportive as Isabel navigates creativity lapses, this new job prospect, as well as her aging mother’s illness.
Isabel is not really interested in writing about race in a way that makes it a political football, and we can tell that she does not believe in the concepts of racism that most people in the traditional political spectrum do. In any event, personal tragedies strike her life, and Isabel wanders away from the endeavor, with the country itself eventually moving on from Martin’s murder.
Marion, Isabel’s cousin played by Niecy Nash-Betts, appears as a calming an influential voice, while editors and friends played variously by an all-star cast that includes Audra McDonald, Vera Farmiga, and Blair Underwood provide the voices of strong, determined women that know exactly how to support her. Isabel begins to find inspiration in a photograph of a German man (played by Finn Wittrock) who refused a Nazi salute and later married a Jewish woman, and in reading a book by Black Harvard professors who passed themselves as crop workers in the 1930s to study race relations.
Eventually, MAGA hats begin to appear around her, including one courtesy of Nick Offerman as a plumber. The contours of academic thesis begin to form in her head supported by this stellar cast. But all the acting chops belong to Ellis, in an incredible follow-up to her Oscar-nominated turn as the titular character’s wife in Will Smith’s King Richard.
Origin kicks into high gear as this second act unfolds. Traveling through both space and time, DuVernay’s methodical, pinpoint script as well as her direction, go to Germany and the American Deep South in the 1930s, India in the 1960s, and modern day America. Contrary to what most modern scholars believe—that race and racism is what divides societies—she becomes convinced that artificial systems called “castes” (which sometimes can use race as a proxy) are what do so. She examines extermination laws enacted by the Nazis and their relationship to Jim Crow, as well as the “untouchables” system in India. And she becomes inspired by the work of the aforementioned brave resistant sociologists to build upon
As much as it sounds like a dry academic tome, Origin is everything but. Anchored by a breathtaking performance by Ellis, Wilkerson’s deep personal pain becomes directly proportional to her conviction and determination to get to the bottom of her thesis. The story is gigantic, but it’s anchored by such a tangible point-of-view. She encounters resistance of course, including by respectful Academics in Germany who resist Wilkerson’s comparison of the two systems of oppression. But she perseveres, while respecting the dissenting voices around her.
But Origin plays like more than just the recitation of an erudite for reasons other than the strong emotional performance at its core. It is thank to DuVernay’s script, which interweaves Wilkerson’s life into her theories that Origin transcends into the level of masterful, transcendent filmmaking.
In her book, Wilkerson concludes that dehumanization of entire groups—castes—of people, is what permits would be oppressors and tyrants to maintain power and divide societies. She notes steps in the dehumanization, including prohibiting interracial marriage for example. Curiously, however, Wilkerson never reads you a theory about how to reverse this dehumanization.
Except that DuVernay silently but convincingly does give you her theory—the solution to dehumanizing entire groups is to methodically humanize individuals one by one—and then cinematically executes it. In her flashbacks showing the dissident German man, the subversive Black Harvard scholars, the Martin Luther King Jr.-like Indian professor who resists his own apartheid — DuVernay paints wonderfully vibrant pictures of humans dedicated to fight injustice and live wholesome lives. They are not unlike Wilkerson herself, and certainly not unlike DuVernay. With this cinematic stroke of genius, buoyed entirely by seamless back and forth editing by Spencer Averick, DuVernay convinces us that there is hope, that redemption is possible, and that defeating tyranny is achievable.
And while Wilkerson’s narration may not have offered an explicit solution to the problem of stigmatization, she did and does offer a way to cope with its horrific consequences—the only way to overcome these challenges is to confront them directly, she explains. And that is exactly with Wilkerson herself does as she goes through unspeakable personal tragedies in rapid succession. As she stoically but emotionally confronts loss and grief, Ellis elevates her performance to the next level.
Few times in cinematic history are intellectual figures represented with such convincing realism yet powerful emotion. They are typically caricatured as cinematic holograms, think A Beautiful Mind or Jobs. DuVernays’ sensibilities are far less cartoonish, far more authentic. She respects all of her subjects so much, that she incredibly refuses every single stereotype available to her about the various players, including the would-be white saviors or white devils in the story.
Every character exists independent of all the expectations most audiences would have of them, once more demonstrating tremendous respect for Wilkerson’s work itself. By the time Wilkerson gets to the last subject matters, those related to a young boy in a softball team in the 1950s, you will be both stunned and in tears. These are real human stories above all.
Origin is a must-see film. It is must-see from a film loving perspective because its already talented director/screenwriter and lead actress showcase such vital storytelling prowess. And it is a must-see from a current affairs perspective because it sets forth an important, persuasive, and perhaps game-changing paradigm in the most intelligible and relatable of ways. It offers a look back and a path forward, and in that sense, it is original, not to mention urgent.
Origin Played at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Neon sometime in 2023.