There has always been a lot of passion and perspective for filmmaker Ava DuVernay; there is no denying that she has always crafted films about essential issues that tie our past with the present. She once again swings big with some mixed results in Origin, a sprawling, ambitiously constructed biographical film that is based on author Isabel Wilkerson’s literary journey and how she constructed her best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents as she copes with grief. Origin, a film that calls for reform and awareness during a very dark period in our nation and even the world as oppression continues to spread against marginalized groups, is one of the most important American films released as of late.
DuVernay accommodates a vessel into Wilkerson’s framework, whose non-fiction book correlates how racism in the United States reflects the origins of a caste system—a structural system of hierarchy that is grounded in prejudice and purity where people of color in every region suffer similar oppression. Both academic and scholarly in approach, DuVernay’s approach deserves praise for its scope and conceptual audacity. While dramatically uneven and overstuffed, the Ava DuVernay film is bold and deserves praise for how she speaks her mind during these dire times as democracy and equality remain so fragile.
While the film is an upgrade from her disappointing fantasy epic, A Wrinkle in Time , Origin doesn’t quite leave the gripping impact of her masterfully crafted documentary titled 13th, which was one of the most powerful documentaries to be released in the 2010s. With Origin, she holds great passion for Wilkerson’s writings, which range from character study to history lessons with a lot of dramatic focus. The yarn begins with a very unsettling reenactment of how a young Trayvon Martin (Myles Forst) was shot and murdered by George Zimmerman. It was a shattering event that shook the nation. What appears to be viewed as a provocation ends up being transcended as we learn that it serves as it begins to lay the groundwork for Wilkerson’s (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) research that leads her to a journey where she discovers so much of history is whitewashed and how so many of our nation’s attitudes, policies, and outcomes on race are a result of a hierarchy in America that we fail to admit or even realize.
After feeling disintegrated by the acquittal, Wilkerson is asked by a newspaper editor, Amari (Blair Underwood), to cover the tragedy and how racism could have played into effect. How it spawned a movement for more social justice, transparency, and an end to standing your ground laws. Wilkerson’s research goes deeper, though. Especially after she listens to the horrifying 911 calls from Zimmerman and an alarmed neighborhood. She suspects the call goes beyond being motivated by just racism. Zimmerman was a Hispanic man after all, and he murdered a Black teenager to protect a predominantly white neighborhood.
It was a tragic event that led to much discourse across the nation and on cable news. Many had very oversimplified thoughts on the tragedy, one that didn’t take long to be politized as nearly everything is anymore. Amari sees racist intentions on Zimmerman’s part, and during a discussion with her mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) and husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), Ruby believes Trevon Martin shouldn’t even go out in late hours in a white neighborhood and unconsciously validates for Black subservience. In these discussions, Wilkerson begins to have fresh insights that there is a hierarchy in motion that goes beyond just racism, just as Zimmerman was compliant in “protecting” a neighborhood that doesn’t hold his best interest.
During her research, Wilkerson is faced with personal tragedies of her own. Meanwhile, her house is starting to decay, and it serves as a metaphor for how homes should be maintained. Even if we move into older homes where we aren’t the original homeowners, there is always something to maintain. This is something we should do as a nation, according to her theory. As time passes, the nation is faced with other adversities and tragedies, such as black churches being targeted and, of course, the tragedy of Charlottsville. Wilkerson ends up exploring more history and drawing connections to how slavery and segregation in the United States hold parallels to how the Jews were treated during the Holocaust or how the Dalits are treated in India.
DuVernay uses a lot of reenactments of these historical periods, and the result can feel like the ideas in the material are crammed, but they remain vital. In many ways, this film could have also made an absorbing documentary, and DuVernay has proven with 13th that she is every bit as skilled (if not even better) as a documentarian as a narrative filmmaker. Regardless, there is a conceptual audacity to DuVernay’s visual style that pulls it away from familiar biopic trappings.
In some ways, the result isn’t always successful, as it pulls away the emotions of Wilkerson’s journey. The story that does move is the devastating story of Al Bright, an 11-year-old Black boy who was forbidden to go into the swimming pool with his fellow baseball teammates after winning a little league championship. The film chronicles how he is forced to watch through the fence, and when the lifeguard does allow him, they put him on a swimming floater where he isn’t even allowed to touch the water. It’s cruelty that has existed in this nation, one that many have a difficult time grasping due to ecocentrism.
While the film is certainly scattershot in its narrative and uneven in some of the drama, where many of the vignettes take away the resonance of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s emotionally charged performance, DuVernay’s latest film works due to how vigorous the ideas are. It’s an uninhibited work of sociology and history whose approach to a non-fiction book almost sounds unfilmable. It’s a bold film that taps into very essential ideas and history that are worthy of discussing and studying. In my early college days, we had a literature-to-film class where we would read the books and then watch the film adaptations to see how they would compare to the source material. Ava DuVernay’s latest film would make a great entry for that class. It would make for a great discussion, and I hope these types of classes still exist. There is an urgency to the film that recalls the work of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee as it pivots from one social idea to the next, exploring all the moralities in between. It’s a heartfelt movie that curves its didacticism. It might not hit on all levels, but DuVernay’s tutelage duty of the potent source material pulls through with its immediacy.
ORIGIN opens in limited theaters Friday, January 19th. It expands to Detroit on Wednesday, January 24th.