Ava DuVernay is one of those rare filmmaker who approaches her work in such a thoughtful manner that no matter what she does, you feel a natural curiosity based on the degree of credibility she’s developed over the last decade. After triumphs like 13th, Selma, and When They See Us, she has given audiences an incredible — and necessary — perspective on race relations and history. Her thoroughness and attention to detail are such a large part of her style that even a subpar corporate cash grab like A Wrinkle in Time garnered otherwise disinterested eyeballs. That ended up being a mulligan in her storied career to date, and a clear indication of what happens when studio dollars trump artistic integrity, but it also showed just how great of a director she is when allowed to tell meaningful stories in her own way.
With her latest effort, Origin, DuVernay takes another novel tack on the issue of inequality, using the search for truth as an exercise in self-therapy and contextualization. In the depths of personal tragedy, this dramatized interpretation of a non-fiction work of scholarly research allows DuVernay to creatively reduce one of the most complex issues on the planet to the universal experience of looking for meaning and logic when nothing seems to make sense.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, previously Oscar-nominated for King Richard, where she did the unthinkable and pulled focus from Will Smith in a Best Actor vehicle, gets her own Best Actress showcase as author Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote the 2020 study, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book, which posits an interconnectivity between every major discriminatory institution in world history — regardless of race or ethnicity — has been a critical and commercial success since its publishing, and the lead performance goes a long way towards translating the heavier academic ideas to a mass audience.
Much of the action is tied to Wilkerson’s emotional state as it relates to the topic, and DuVernay has no qualms about going straight for the jugular when it comes to the viewer’s sense of justice and empathy. Don’t believe me? The film opens with Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost), recreating the night George Zimmerman killed him by starting with the ominous visual of the stalking, then cutting away and waiting several minutes for Wilkerson to hear the 9–1–1 call before showing the actual homicide.
But even in a moment like this, DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor emphasize the idea that there are no easy answers to the ills of society. Wilkerson is approached by her former editor Amari (Blair Underwood) with a request to write a piece on the Martin case and the racism inherent in his slaying, but Wilkerson is hesitant to go down that path, more interested in why a Latino man took it upon himself to kill a black teenager to protect a white neighborhood. Why would a member of one oppressed demographic target another in service to those who put them in those positions? That’s what Wilkerson wants to explore, but she can’t figure out how to make it all work, how to make the world see the family’s grief through a lens other than standard bigotry.
The beginnings of the solution come, sadly, from her own mother (Emily Yancy). While watching the news together in her seniors apartment, along with her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), Isabel is aghast at her mom’s reaction to the story, first sympathy and sadness for Trayvon’s family, followed by a lament of “Why didn’t he just say, ‘Yes sir, no sir’?” This line of thinking, pernicious though it is, is ingrained into black people of her generation, and is often trotted out whenever there’s any kind of imbalanced interracial violence, particularly when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian. Why wasn’t he more compliant? Why did he talk back to the cop? Why didn’t he just do what he was told? These questions immediately shift the blame to the victim and away from the perpetrator, and reinforce the idea that there’s some social order that one class of people is expected to follow but not others, the classic “rules for thee, but not for me” hypocrisy.
This realization, combined with a string of tragic losses in her own life, leads Isabel down the road to explore how exactly the inequities of our current society and human history are structured and maintained. To many Americans, the answer often defaults to race and/or socioeconomic class. That’s certainly the opinion shared by Isabel’s cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts, doing her level best to replicate Ellis-Taylor’s surprise run from two years ago). However, as Isabel comes to find out, it doesn’t always boil down to the color of one’s skin. Thus begins the journey of discovery, looking at the likes of slavery and segregation in the U.S., the Holocaust in Germany, and the discrimination against “Untouchable” Dalits in India, and wondering how they all might be related.
To the film’s credit, she is challenged quite vigorously on these fronts, both subtly and overtly. On the one hand, her mother’s house requires repairs in order to sell it, and the plumber hired to inspect the pipes (Nick Offerman) arrives in a bright red MAGA hat. In such a delicate social and political landscape, such an encounter is ripe for histrionics, but Isabel, despite her fear, finds a way to connect with him without ever invoking the obvious context. On the other hand, intellectual peers question her underlying premise, asking how slavery can be comparable to the Holocaust, where the aim of one practice was subjugation while the other was extermination. There’s a commitment to having a good faith discussion without judgment, and when the connective tissue is revealed, it’s quite eye-opening.
A lot of this is due to DuVernay’s deft writing and direction, with Ellis-Taylor filling in the gaps with her warm, relatable performance. The determination to not settle for surface level answers is noble, and when we see vignettes of historical figures not often documented as part of this struggle, the point is driven home with humanist skill. We’re shown stories like August Landmesser’s marriage to Irma Eckler (Finn Wittrock and Victoria Pedretti, respectively), a case where a German man — who infamously was shown to be the only one not offering a heil salute in a noteworthy photograph from 1936 — married a Jewish woman in defiance of Nazi law; the partnership of anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas Jones) with a pair of white academics to show the dichotomy of life for black and white people in the Jim Crow south; and the education of Dr. Suraj Yengde — playing himself — as a Dalit professor after the path was forged by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (Guarav J. Pathania) when the lowest class of India wasn’t even allowed to occupy the same buildings as others due to their birth status.
All of these vignettes feed the thesis that discrimination isn’t necessarily based on race, as the Indian and German cases involved people of the same skin color, but they all share common ground as societies enact various caste systems to separate and control the disempowered populations. Once Isabel has that epiphany, the story becomes about how these institutions are structured, and how they can ultimately be torn down, using her mother’s house, which has fallen into some disrepair, as the key metaphor.
There are exactly two elements that didn’t really work for me, one from a production standpoint, and the other story-based. On the technical side of things, the editing was just a little bit off. All the stories and histories that DuVernay weaves into this narrative are intriguing and educational, but they aren’t paced all that well. For example, we meet August and Irma quite early in the film, as part of a lecture that Isabel is giving before Amari approaches her about the Trayvon Martin case. We don’t see them again for upwards of an hour, and ultimately, their story is left open-ended. Similarly, when Isabel makes the discovery that part of the Holocaust was actually modeled on American segregation laws, that’s a huge moment, but the presentation is awkward. We see Isabel in a library, reading the minutes of a crucial meeting led by Joseph Goebbels (Daniel Lommatzsch) where the higher officials of the Nazi party agree to adopt a similar strategy to isolate the Jews. We then cut to a recreation of that meeting, and everyone is speaking German with no subtitles, as the event is more important than the verbiage. Then we jump to a cafe where Isabel is having a colleague (Leonardo Nam) translate a much larger tome that covers the same ground. Then we go back to that meeting, only now everyone is speaking English. And finally, the sequence ends with Isabel back in the library. That’s just confused and disjointed. DuVernay got the point across just fine with the first two shots. Everything else is superfluous and a tad clumsy. It doesn’t detract too much from the overall quality, but it was noticeable.
On a more academic level, there was one aspect of Isabel’s journey through the caste system that I was surprised wasn’t explored, which is the influence of religion. A lot of the horrors that are depicted in this film, and the institutions that propagated them, were heavily intertwined with religion. The Indian caste system is historically based on Hindu and Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation, justifying the treatment of the different castes because being born into one was considered a reward or punishment for deeds done in a previous life. Nazi Germany singled out Jews as scapegoats for every problem in their world, and reinforced Protestant denominations as being inherently superior (the Third Reich also targeted Catholics, but not nearly to the extent that they did the Jewish). Colonialism, which extended to the slave trade, demanded the forcible conversion of masses of people to Christianity, using their interpretation of scripture to put themselves in power and demand fealty from those they brought into bondage. Those are just the relevant examples I can think of for issues presented in the movie itself. You can go all through history, from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, to feudal Europe, to the divine right of kings, to current hostilities in the Middle East and the poaching and clear-cutting of indigenous land in Central and South America for tons more.
I was honestly flabbergasted that this was never addressed, especially in a situation where someone like Ava DuVernay, who is an expert at asking the hard questions, had a golden opportunity to do so. As I’ve sat on the experience, however, I can mostly forgive it for two reasons. One, the religious angle doesn’t easily tie into Isabel’s personal journey as depicted in the film. That’s not to say that it couldn’t have, but I can see the creative path DuVernay decided to take, and throwing faith into the mix might have been doing too much. Second, the omission actually made me more curious to read Wilkerson’s actual book. As demonstrated in a late montage, she builds her argument around the idea of pillars as a foundation for the caste systems, focusing on five major points. I honestly wondered if Wilkerson herself left religion out of the equation, so I checked the wiki for the book. Sure enough, it is also a pillar, and there are a couple other pillars that didn’t make the cut in the dramatization.
Because of this, I want to read this book even more, to see what Wilkerson has to say on this and other matters that weren’t in the flick, and I’m okay enough with the artistic decision to not knock the score down too much for intellectual dishonesty, a fault that a lot of other filmmakers would succumb to. I still don’t agree with the choice, but I understand it, and given that part of the purpose of this film is to raise awareness of the book itself, the fact that I really want to dive into it means the movie accomplished its goal, and that’s more than fitting. Origin isn’t meant to be the greatest piece of cinema ever made, but rather expose audiences to a perspective they might not have previously considered and maintain a crucial dialogue. If you come out of this wanting to discuss the finer points — be it of the production or the intellectual message — then Ava DuVernay has done her job exactly as needed.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How do you interpret the social problems of the world? Do you feel like you fight against modern caste systems or unwittingly perpetuate them? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!