When Pulitzer prize winner author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, "King Richard," TV's 'Justified: City Primeval') is asked by her former newspaper editor (Blair Underwood) to write about the Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost) case, she resists, stating she only writes books now. But when she listens to the 911 recordings she cannot shake the question of why a Latino man would deputize himself to follow a black boy to protect an all white neighborhood, leading her down the path that would become her next book, one seeking his bigotry’s “Origin.”
Laura's Review: B
Inspired by Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book 'Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,' writer/director Ava DuVernay’s ("Selma") uniquely structured screenplay is an ambitious melding of an author pursuing a thesis linking global oppression with the writer’s personal life which is beset by a series of tragedy. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s inquisitive and moving performance is supported by a well cast ensemble, especially the three actors playing the people closest to her – Jon Bernthal as her husband Brett Hamilton, Niecy Nash-Betts as her cousin and confidante Marion and Emily Yancy as her aging mother Ruby.
DuVernay introduces us to Wilkerson’s immediate family as she and Brett prepare to move Ruby into assisted living, cousin Marion supplying humorous commentary via phone. Isabel feels guilty but Brett reminds her that her mother wishes for her to continue her work. She flies off to give a talk about individual resistance, using the example of August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), the lone person not giving the Nazi salute in a famous picture from 1936. As Isabel talks, DuVernay flashes back to Landmesser’s love story and eventual marriage to Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti), a Jew, which ends in tragedy. Isabel asks her audience how they think they might respond to a similar situation today.
This will be one of Isabel’s jumping off points as she connects the Nazis’ systemic eradication of Jews to American Jim Crow laws, the latter as seen through ‘Deep South’ researchers, anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Jasmine Cephas Jones and Isha Carlos Blaaker) and Burleigh and Mary Gardner (Matthew Zuk and Hannah Pniewski), the former black couple having experienced Nazi Germany only to return home and go undercover with their friends, the white Gardners, to experience American racism. Wilkerson will also tie in India’s Dalits, the ‘untouchables,’ explaining to Marion that while they personally experience racism, the underlying issue is caste, India’s people all of the same race, just like Hitler’s Germany. But with Isabel’s research ongoing, she will lose every single person close to her, her grief illustrated by DuVernay in communion with both Wilkerson’s loved ones and her research subjects in a bed of falling leaves.
While the film is very well acted and often emotionally overwhelming, there are two issues hampering DuVernay’s movie. Firstly, the filmmaker has simply taken on too much, her subject’s grief and almost unbelievable loss fighting against the other part of the story, yet given equal weight - the loss is too much and Isabel’s book not enough. Secondly, Wilkerson’s thesis, her idea that the problem isn’t racism per se but caste, is greeted with awe by all who hear it, yet, to this viewer at least, is obvious, one which is repeatedly pointed out as having been made before by not only the ‘Deep South’ authors but Martin Luther King. One gets the sense that the book has been severely abridged here, a quick flash of ‘purification vs. pollution’ written on Isabel’s whiteboard preceding a devastating story about a young black baseball player, Al Bright (Lennox Simms), refused admittance to a public pool with his team on a scorching hot day, then allowed to float upon it on an inflatable, continually told not to touch the water.
“Origins” is a film of many powerful moments –Brett charmingly inviting Isabel into his life, the way she sticks out at an overwhelmingly white social gathering, her disarming of Maga cap wearing Dave the Plumber (Nick Offerman), Miss Hale’s (Audra McDonald) story of triumph waylaid by fear – all of which tie into the film’s overall theme. But the film is at odds with itself, DuVernay unable to decide whether it is about Isabel’s book or her personal losses. Still, one must admire the filmmaker’s attempt to encompass so many aspects of one woman’s journey, even if she allows the trees to obscure the forest. “Origin” may be flawed, but it is unique, moving and powerful nonetheless.
Robin's Review: B
Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) took on the daunting assignment of unveiling the many faces of prejudice and racism in America, Nazi Germany and modern India. What she finds are the similarities in each culture’s “Origin.”
Ava DuVernay directs and adapts Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 non-fiction book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, about racism in the US. The filmmaker uses the book as the jumping off point to tell two stories. The obvious one is about racism, social hierarchy and the restrictions that keep the least desirable of a society from having human rights and the chance for education, advancement and recognition.
DuVernay uses the analysis of Wilkerson’s book to explore the race system and the diversity it can have, from America to Nazi Germany to India. Each of those cultures has its own underdogs and restriction that hold them down: the Jim Crow laws that followed the end of slavery in America is compared to both the oppression by the Nazis to those deemed sub-human (e.g. Jews and Gypsies) and the caste system in India with its “Untouchable” bottom class.
Unfortunately, for a kid like me who is a student of history. The detailed exploration of the world’s various caste systems is all familiar to me so I judged DuVernay’s exploration on her accuracy. The director describes these various systems of oppression deftly, using several devices in the exploration to good effect.
Now, what I had a problem with in “Origin.” Isabel’s exploration across the world uncovering the origins of the hate of those deigned beneath us is a fascinating study. It is intertwined, though, with the tragedies that occurred and occur in the author’s life. It is very touching and sad but, to me, distracted and pulled me away from the thoughtful analysis of the caste systems which, like it or not, still exists.
“Origin,” in its teaching role, does a fine job in educating the viewer on the source and implementation of the caste systems in our world, I can forgive the filmmaker’s indulgence in her adaptation. The education is worth the admission price.
Neon qualified "Origin" for 2023 awards with a one week NY/LA run on 12/8/23. It is opening in select theaters on 1/19/24 and expanding on 1/26/24.