Has Ava DuVernay ever made a simple, easy to digest movie meant to entertain? I guess you could argue A Wrinkle in Time, but for the most part she has been devoted to addressing larger ideas. Whether it was her MLK Jr. film Selma, her stunning documentary 13th about the incarceration of Black men, or dramas such as Middle of Nowhere and Colin in Black & White, DuVernay has focused much of her attention on the issue of race. Only a filmmaker like DuVernay would dare present the issue of racism as being too simplistic, but in the case of Origin, a bold, heartfelt adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s Pultizer Prize-winning book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, it is literally true as inferior to the levels of discrimination and prejudice affecting certain groups regardless of skin color.
Wilkerson’s bestseller doesn’t exactly lend itself to easy adaptation, either, at least not as a narrative feature. DuVernay could’ve easily turned Caste into another award-winning documentary or series, and nobody would’ve batted an eye. Instead, she took on the challenge of making it into a feature film, a complicated, often heartbreaking journey that incorporates aspects of Wilkerson’s own personal story. Let’s make it clear: the crux of Origin and Wilkerson’s theory isn’t that racism is a non-factor. It’s that racism isn’t enough to explain the centuries of calculated oppression against specific groups. The idea is sparked when Wilkerson, played with an equal mix of ferocity and grace by Aunjanue Ellis, is chastised by a German philosopher (Connie Nielsen) for trying to draw a connection to Nazis treatment of the Jews and our country’s treatment of Blacks. The revelation that our own Jim Crow laws inspired the Nazi cause will act as a powerful gut punch to those unaware, as it was for Wilkerson. But furthermore, Wilkerson also investigates India and the plight of the Dalits, or the “untouchables”, a marginalized group in the lowest possible caste in India, who are forced to work the most humiliating jobs with no hope of ascending beyond. In the case of the Dalits, they are brown just like their persecutors; just as the Jews were White like the Nazis. To merely call it racism that they are discriminated against simply dosn’t suffice: it’s caste that is the problem.
Origin works as a history lesson and a walk through Wilkerson’s intellectual growth, driven by tragedy and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. It is both an ambitious and arduous task that DuVernay has given for herself, and at times the film feels as if it is taking on way too much. From the beginning, with a devastating reenactment of the Trayvon Martin murder, DuVernay makes clear that she’s not going to pull any punches. The scene plays out as we know it will and it’s going to be triggering for a lot of people. Wilkerson, whose sweet, supportive husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) is white, is shocked when her mother (Emily Yancy) suggests Trayvon should’ve been more careful about where he was at and who he was speaking to. The older woman isn’t blaming Trayvon; people of a certain generation are taught to be fearful and respectful of whites. She even poses to Brett that white people are terrified of Blacks being in their neighborhood and he concedes that he thinks it’s true, but also that people can’t live their life in fear.
Nevertheless, the comment gets Isabel thinking, and every good idea starts with a single thought. Tragedy hits Isabel left and right; she loses practically everyone close to her. It’s during these frequent tragedies that Origin feels a bit unwieldy. We never see quite enough of Brett; although we get a good sense of the decent human being that he is and why Isabel loves him. It’s a solid role for Bernthal who is astonishingly good at playing this kind of supportive role for a guy who has also been The Punisher. Practically overshadowing everyone in her too-few scenes is Niecy Nash-Betts as Marion, Isabel’s cousin and often her sounding board when she needs a common person’s perspective. Isabel can get in her own head and forget to impart her wisdom in a way people can understand, but it’s Marion who encourages her to “make it plain” so the message gets out.
DuVernay sometimes has the same problem as Wilkerson, and occasionally Origin can feel like homework. That’s when DuVernay flips the script on our expectations. Nick Offerman, sporting one of those Make America Great Again hats that the Trumpers love so much, plays a dismissive plumber hired by Isabel to fix a leak. While it looks like things will explode in a typically confrontational, on-the-nose manner, DuVernay highlights the virtues of simple conversation and finding common ground to diffuse a situation. The point being that regardless of our politics, we all want the same things and share many of the same concerns if we’d only take the time to listen.
It’s another superb, unshakeable performance from Ellis, following what turned out to be a breakthrough role in King Richard. Ellis’ intellect and passion are matched by DuVernay, with the two giving Wilkerson’s weighty concepts the emotional grounding they need. Those baffled by her decision not to do a documentary only need to watch Origin to see why. A cold recitation of the facts might’ve gotten the message across, and then nothing would be done to address the issue. You need to make people feel something in order to move them, and few are better than DuVernay at stirring audiences to action.
Origin opens in select theaters on December 8th, expanding on January 19th 2024.