Examining non-fictional source material through its process of creation is always a fascinating endeavour. Ava DuVernay has adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents with the title Origin. There is a fitting duality in the word ‘origin’ referencing the book’s study of racial equality in America being rooted in the caste system. It can also refer to Wilkerson’s (played here by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) own process in formulating her connections, research and arguments to interrogate her thesis that the genesis of racism through the caste system interconnects demographics all around the world.
The challenge therein lies in taking such complex source material and translating it into a way that befits the medium of cinema. DuVernay takes time before we get into the investigation to acquaint us with Wilkerson’s personal life. These scenes place emphasis on some humorous interactions and tender moments between Wilkerson and her mother (Emily Yancy), husband (Jon Bernthal) and cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts), where they engage in small talk and serious discussions alike, underlied with tensions as Wilkerson struggles with indecision and uncertainty over her direction in life. Somewhat less successful are glimpses of Wilkerson’s professional life with her having discussions with her publishers. The set up for Wilkerson’s decision to start investigating caste systems are undercut by some clunky dialogue. There’s also some odd distracting cameos that don’t serve any clear purpose (Nick Offerman’s distracting scene as a MAGA plumber feels oddly shoehorned in).
Past this early stretch, the film properly kicks into gear when a devastating set of tragedies leads Wilkerson to embark on this challenging journey to interconnect past with present and communities around the globe through her new project. Ellis-Taylor, so remarkable in DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us, imbues Wilkerson with a real lived-in authenticity to every moment. It’s a performance that isn’t predominantly about the big emotional moments. Rather, much of Wilkerson’s journey involves her listening, debating, contemplating and processing the information she’s given, the connections she derives, and the conclusions she makes. Ellis-Taylor artfully makes the act of research so compelling in itself, and helps anchor the film as its vessel of information. Her eyes speak volumes in themselves in the scenes where she conducts interviews, and she is just as great at nailing the big emotional moments, with a scene where she muses over her past with a loved one with a repeated invocation of ‘we didn’t break’ being a particularly strong example of it.
DuVernay makes extensive use of montages of historical recreations focusing on historical figures and academics: from August Landmesser, a German worker alleged to be the figure who refused to salute the Nazis in a famous photo and who fell in love with a Jewish woman), to Allison Davis and the Gardners whose book of anthropological study Deep South has become a key text of examining the origins of racism, to Dr B.R. Ambedkar whose research into the caste system proved to be foundational to Wilkerson’s research and writing. Lingering over this all are references to Travyon Martin, whose murder bookends the narrative poignantly, and other Black victims of systematic racism. There runs a risk of this approach being too overwhelming, and occasionally these sequences obfuscate rather than amplify the film’s strengths, with the Germany sequences in particular having a certain artifice to them. But they are all carried beautifully through Ellis-Taylor’s voiceover narration which drives the film forward with her words. Wilkerson’s words, articulating this thorough investigation into the caste system and its methods of dehumanising groups of individuals to foster hate and violence, find some striking moments when intertwined with DuVernay’s visual storytelling, Ellis-Taylor’s performance, and Kris Bower’s beautiful score.
When the film weaves in the connections between the subjugations under the Indian caste system, the Holocaust, and slavery in America, there is a real visceral power even when it maintains its relatively gentle, quiet tone. A sequence where Wilkerson discovers how Nazis used American frameworks of subjugating black Americans as inferior beings as ‘a path to answer’ to oppressing Jewish people by means of imposing inferiority is downright chilling. DuVernay allows for moments of catharsis towards the end in Wilkerson’s breakthroughs, but also tempers any celebratory impulses by recognising the shattered foundations upon which our modern society lies upon, loosened by years of subjugation and oppression through caste systems.
While certain narrative and structural elements are imperfect in construction, Origin finds great power when it hits its stride thanks to Ellis-Taylor’s quietly empowering portrayal of Wilkerson and DuVernay’s artful, intelligent handling of Wilkerson’s texts, translating it to the medium of film with a focus on finding the connections through pain and trauma, and the prospects of repair and triumph.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. NEON will release Origin in the U.S.