Ambitious, intellectual and deeply humanistic, Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” opens with a soul-shattering prologue. A Black teen runs an evening errand at a white neighborhood in Florida. He is on the phone with his girlfriend, complaining about a suspicious guy following him in his car. Both are concerned and his girlfriend asks him to let her know when he’s back home. We don’t see the end of the episode, because we don’t have to. The Black teen’s name is Trayvon Martin, fatally shot on a February night in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a man of Hispanic descent, for no reason.
It’s a disquieting sequence of shadows, reflections and a sense of claustrophobia, shot with remarkable skill as well as a sense of duty and restraint. While complimenting the quality of filmmaking behind a devastating moment of recent American history might be a tad crass to some eyes and ears, it is necessary to mention, as DuVernay—a Hollywood powerhouse across TV and cinema with the likes of “Queen Sugar,” “When They See Us” and “Selma”—makes no random choices here. It’s all constructed with an eye towards putting the audience in Martin’s shoes. She makes us feel, really feel, the danger closing in on him.
It is just as necessary to mention the two men’s racial identities since race—or a radical way of reframing the conversation around race—is the genesis of Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s best selling book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” the source of DuVernay’s film.
DuVernay has always been a storyteller of crystallized clarity. As she demonstrated in “13th,” her studious documentary on racial injustice and incarceration in America, she has a unique ability to see through complex notions and make them accessible to the masses. It is that ability that makes DuVernay the right filmmaker to tackle Wilkerson’s book, which is full of the kind of big ideas that can change the world.
The film, consequently, has plenty of them too. In that, “Origin” is a searing tapestry of rational and academic process, familial solidarity and romantic love, interlaced with drops of true stories that defied watershed events in history. It is Wilkerson’s journey as well, unfolding around the process of writing her best seller.
Isabel is played sturdily by a resolute and terrific Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (“King Richard”), over a story that spans continents (stretching from the US to Europe and India) and time periods, and contains within it various anecdotes from different eras, vital for Wilkerson to engage with and explain her grand thesis. That thesis, to oversimplify it, goes like this: Perhaps race alone is a limited lens through which we continually look at America’s and the world’s crises, from Slavery and the Holocaust, to the suppression of Dalits in India.
Perhaps we have a shaky handle on the word racism that we use as a catch-all to describe various shades of injustice. And so understanding caste—structures of oppression that dehumanize, and sometimes eradicate groups, not always only because of the color of their skin—is a more complete way of comprehending how entitlement, cruelty and coercion has spread across the world throughout history and pushed certain people to the lowest ranks of the societal hierarchies.
Isabel hasn’t reached this argument yet when she is approached by a colleague to write an investigative piece about the Martin case. The 911 calls are chilling, yet she turns down the assignment. Her hands are full at work and home—a beautiful grace note of an earlier scene introduces us to Isabel and her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) as they lovingly help Isabel’s aging mom (a memorable Emily Yancy) move out of her house, and into a managed apartment for seniors.
Plus, Isabel would rather write answers, not questions, as she puts it. Still, Martin’s case and how people keep talking about race in relation to events like it continues to haunt her. “Racist…what does that even mean these days?,” she wonders around her friends, editors and colleagues (played by the likes of Vera Farmiga and Blair Underwood), feeling that issues with larger tentacles need to be addressed from a more comprehensive lens.
Two crushing losses mark Isabel’s life meanwhile: one is the passing of her mom, and the other, the shocking death of her husband. Perhaps to keep herself occupied through unimaginable pain, and with her closest ally and soundboard of a cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) by her side, Isabel decides to wrestle with her thoughts on the caste systems around the world and their pillars, embarking on a quest across the US and around the world that finally becomes her brilliant book.
As DuVernay journeys through the Nazi Germany, slavery, the Jim Crow South, and India in the past and present, she puts forth short film after stunning short film, with immense scale, scope and period details both emotionally and visually. A man who rejects to do the Nazi salute in a crowd, a Black kid who was not admitted to a community pool with his white friends, a Black woman who was splendidly named “Miss Hale” by her father in an act that rejected their supposed caste…
She braids these narrative arias non-linearly with chapters from Isabel’s life, giving us glimpses into how she and Brett first met and fell in love. (The amusing episode of their initial encounter, where the well-meaning Brett could be mistaken for a white-savior mansplainer by those who might skip over his charming self-awareness, is disarmingly delightful.)
She also follows Isabel across enriching conversations and disagreements, and smaller moments of poise that give the film liberal amounts of theoretical breathing room. One of them brings Isabel face to face with an initially standoffish plumber in a MAGA hat (played by Nick Offerman) as Isabel cleans out her mom’s flooding home. The two briefly talk about their parents cordially on Isabel’s lead. Isabel insists on bringing out and seeing a fraction of the humanity of a person whose alliances go against everything she believes in. Amazingly, she succeeds.
“Origin” is so rich, expansive and wildly varied that one could easily see how DuVernay could have turned it into a mini-series. How great that she instead chose a compact and coherent feature, with articulate editing, buttery cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) across various visual palettes of different time periods, and opulent costume and production design. It feels remarkable how each of the film’s interludes have their own identity, but still fit neatly into the whole.
At times, it’s a lot, burdened by questionable motifs like the fallen leaves that represent Isabel’s grieving. But these missteps are rare and there is something compulsively watchable and rewatchable within even such cracks of DuVernay’s expansive artifact. It’s a smart movie about smart people, following a brilliant Black woman distilling chaos into rationale and generously pouring her groundbreaking ideas into the world. It’s a rare thing.
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