In “Origin,” Ava DuVernay weaves a centuries- and continents-spanning narrative feature around the ideas of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson, who rejects the word “racism.” It’s not that she doesn’t believe that racism exists; rather, she doesn’t think that racism alone can explain the inequity in human society — the way America’s founders could have written “all men are created equal” and meant something so different.
As Isabel (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), who is gearing up to tackle “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” having already written “The Warmth of Other Suns,” puts it to her editor (Blair Underwood), “Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient.” And later, to her sister (Niecy Nash-Betts) over a plate of barbecue ribs: “We have to consider oppression in a way that does not centralize race.”
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The book “Caste” was Wilkerson’s answer to that challenge, drawing connections between discrimination in the United States and how Nazi Germany invented a social hierarchy to justify the Holocaust, which she links in turn to the rigid system of caste in India. “Origin” is DuVernay’s ambitious yet accessible way of doing the same: questioning and contextualizing how we got here.
Rather than adapting “Caste” directly (a task that would call for a documentary at least as enormous and wide-ranging as her 2016 feature “The 13th”), DuVernay opts to focus on Wilkerson herself. This may sound like a recipe for disaster. Imagine a series of “eureka” moments as the journalist brainstorms with editors, scours libraries and furrows her brow in front of her laptop en route to publishing her bestseller. How could this possibly be cinematic? How could it possibly be compelling?
The real question might be: How could we possibly have doubted DuVernay’s ability to make it so, for here is a director who has demonstrated on multiple occasions her capacity to shift and reframe the conversation. Then again, as Isabel’s Jewish German friend Sabine (Connie Nielsen) says in the film, “A framework is not a book,” inserting into “Origin” one of the critiques that have been leveled against Isabel’s thesis.
DuVernay’s dense and dazzling movie cleverly contains the interviews and footnotes that went into its creation, as DP Matthew J. Lloyd’s camera glides over the bookshelves in Isabel’s home to reveal the reference materials that inspired the character. A unifying if slightly flat style reinforces what disparate spheres have in common, capturing bodies crowded in slave ships, book burnings in Berlin and significant exchanges between Isabel and her family. DuVernay opens with the Trayvon Martin murder (reenacted over the 911 recordings) and raises issues of redlining, reparations and the enduring insult that Confederate monuments represent.
Sabine can beg to differ, but what makes DuVernay’s movie so essential is the way it approaches America’s most difficult issue. “Origin” draws comparisons, introduces examples and enables discussion. And it deemphasizes the dreaded “R-word,” racism, which has a way of triggering white fragility and stopping meaningful talk dead in its tracks. One needn’t even agree with Wilkerson, who built her argument on several scholars before her (such as the undercover anthropologists whose 1941 “Deep South” study is re-created here) that caste is a more appropriate means of understanding divisions based on arbitrary or invented differences.
The film will get people thinking and talking. The way DuVernay directs it, “Origin” is a swirling tornado of ideas. Watching Ellis-Taylor put them together is like witnessing Russell Crowe do higher math in “A Beautiful Mind” or seeing detectives in a David Fincher movie standing before a bulletin board full of clues, panting, “It all means something!” Here, Isabel proclaims, “The interconnectedness, that is my point!” at a family picnic.
It can be a little corny, but it’s also inspiring, and that’s yet another dimension that matters here: In “Origin,” young audiences observe a fiercely intelligent Black woman repeatedly challenging the status quo. They also see her dealing with the personal hurdles that life throws in her way. Isabel loses her supportive white husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), closely followed by her mother (Emily Yancy). She struggles to get a disrespectful plumber (Nick Offerman) to fix a leak in her basement and finds it hard to motivate herself at times.
These are setbacks that most directors might omit, but which inform Isabel’s journey (watch how she finds a way to forge a connection with the plumber). DuVernay’s decision to include them in her elaborately quilted film reveals what she’s learned from the great Agnès Varda, director of “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” whose essay-like features never shied away from the supposedly “female” dimensions of life in her work. These details make Isabel’s character richer and more relatable, expanding upon the kind of anecdotes Wilkerson chose to share in her book.
The big risk Wilkerson took with “Caste” was not just commenting on the American system, but connecting it to other cultures that might outwardly seem quite different. The movie helps make her case, blending stylized reenactments of historical elements with a contemporary trip to India, where she meets Dalit professor Suraj Yengde (who plays himself) and learns about caste-defying pioneer Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania). None other than Martin Luther King Jr. drew the connection between Indian “untouchables” and American segregation in a piece published in Ebony magazine, quoted here. Earlier in the film, Isabel discovers a transcript directly referencing Jim Crow policies during the drafting of Germany’s Nuremberg Laws (DuVernay has foreign actors speaking heavily accented English during this scene).
A number of the creative choices seem to have been taken for maximum accessibility to the mainstream, which might not be as artistic or austere in its approach as other movies selected for competition at the Venice Film Festival (where “Origin” premiered). But that’s no sign of compromise. DuVernay wants her film to reach far and wide, to broaden the reach of Wilkerson’s work. In writing the book, Wilkerson identifies the unifying elements of caste. Here, the character goes to her whiteboard and diagrams the key “pillars” of race- and class-based stratification. As the strings and piano of “Spiegel im Spiegel” underscore her point, Isabel observes, “Racism is not the same as caste because race does not matter in order for the system to work.” What it takes to dismantle it is empathy of the kind “Origin” encourages, and a willingness to question a system that sees difference instead of that which unites us.
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