If Ava Duvernay is directing, one can rest assured the film will probably surpass your expectations, which holds true for “Origin.” Here, she adapts Isabel Wilkerson’s novel “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” into a docudrama retelling the ongoing story of Wilkerson’s journey in writing the book. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor portrays her with intellect, warmth, and compassion in an award-worthy performance. When she encounters the question of race once again after Trayvon Martin’s death by the racial profiling of a neighborhood watch person, who was told by police not to continue pursuing him, she begins to study the core of racial injustice.
The Pulitzer prize-winning author’s racial injustice journey took her to Germany to study the Nazi’s systematic methods that were used to dehumanize the race of Jewish people, looking at the mandates that were imposed, the burning of books, the erasing of identity, the wearing of a star, then ultimately death camps. She also traveled to India to study the marginalization of Dalit “untouchables,” the lowest caste members of Indian society. In areas of India, the group is expected and assigned the worst work in cleaning latrine tanks by climbing in and changing filters. The images are heart-wrenching to watch, just as a sequence of America in the 1960s when a black child was not allowed into a swimming pool after his team won their state baseball game.
These explorations bring questions to one’s mind. Duvernay covers both sides of the argument. The delivery of Ellis-Taylor’s performance makes this film so powerful; by the time her mother passes and the same year her husband, played by Jon Bernthal, we are in tears as well. Playing her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), of whom we learn the author’s inner feelings, she voices her concerns and encouragement, also adding levity, which is needed during the heavy concepts that are brought forward. Her supportive white husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), provides the black/white blockades as they work through her writing assignments and theories.
I appreciated the docudrama’s format, as we are privy to Ellis-Taylor’s performance, which heightens the subject matter, providing a genuine look at the real-life person rather than a sterile documentary, as Roger Ebert once told me when critiquing a film, “How did it make you feel?” and do you really care about the person and or the circumstances. During the Q&A hosted by Toronto Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey, DuVernay said Isabel Wilkerson’s big ideas inspired her; here, she is the risk-taker by taking us on a journey that leads to discussions and hopefully solutions in the future.
Director: Ava Duvernay
Screenplay: Ava Duvernay
Cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Emily Yancy, Vera Farmiga, Blair Underwood, Nick Offerman
Sarah Knight Adamson September 13, 2023