True original

The Plot: Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is a journalist who is married to a white man, Brett (Jon Bernthal). She also tends to her aging mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) while bouncing ideas off others in her family. She’s writing a book about the role of caste in American society – that people are divided up into different social groups and that some are in a higher position than others. In her thesis, she identifies that throughout history African-Americans are not bound by race but by caste. She digs deeper with trips to Germany and India to trace how caste is used in other cultures to subjugate and eradicate people deemed lesser. In doing so, she has to confront the harsh truth at the heart of American society…

The Verdict: Ava DuVernay’s latest film Origin was perhaps unfairly shut out of the Oscars conversation and didn’t score a single nomination. She shouldn’t be too put off by that though. Plenty of worthy films and performances don’t make the final cut and at the end of the day, it’s a popularity horse race after all. Origin might just have been too provocative to appeal to the older and more conservative voters of The Academy. Origin is something of a true original at that and isn’t the kind of film that can be easily reduced to a Hollywood-style postage-stamp concept. It’s a think-piece built as such from the ground up, designed to get people talking about its weighty themes in a post-film discussion. Whether that’s civil or heated is up to the audience and how they react based on their view of the world.

Structurally speaking, Origin takes an unusual approach to its storytelling device. As per the onscreen notice at the beginning, it’s inspired by the non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Having worked in both documentaries (13th) and true-story dramatisations (Selma), DuVernay has opted for the less-obvious choice of making Origin a dramatisation of Wilkerson’s writing process in developing her thesis and how she turned it into a best-selling book. It’s a daring narrative device, given the natural choice of a docudrama. What it does do is it allows DuVernay to open out the story more by putting a human face to an otherwise intellectual discussion which crosses race, gender, culture and time. It also allows her to add more cinematic flair, with large-scale re-enactments of Nazi book-burning rallies along, a lone voice standing out from a saluting crowd of German workers and an insightful story involving a young boy and a swimming pool.

These vivid vignettes are in service to the story and round out the inner discussion. Wilkerson reads about how the Nazis studied US segregation laws to put Jews at the very bottom of the societal ladder, along with the treatment of the Dalits – the ‘Untouchables’ of India. She then relates this to recent African-American deaths that made the headlines like Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. There’s undeniably a lot to take in with this film, but it doesn’t become overwhelming. DuVernay is a talented filmmaker who knows how to harness this narrative power, massage it and make it more than a dry academic lecture for students of history. She grounds Wilkerson’s story in a relatable way by making the character arc progressive, with Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor adjusting her performance with each mic drop moment about how history repeats itself. At one point, DuVernay’s camera zooms in on a quote from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi – ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen and it can happen everywhere.’

It’s arguable as to whether Wilkerson’s spider web-like thesis almost convinces, but as a piece of bravura filmmaking Origin is convincing in its own right. DuVernay dances a fine line between being not realistic enough and being too realistic in its re-enactments given its own origin as a book. She does so with style and conviction though, ramming home her point with careful consideration. Origin won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s impactful and thought-provoking enough to mark itself out from anything else in cinemas at the moment.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

True original
Origin (USA / 12A / 140 mins)

In short: True original

Directed by Ava DuVernay.

Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash, Emily Yancy, Connie Nielsen, Vera Farmiga.

True original