Movie Review: Origin

Ava DuVernay has tackled some monumental issues and projects in recent years, like bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to the big screen with Selma, explaining the prison-industrial complex in 13th, and adapting A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most adored YA novels of all time.

But her current effort, Origin, maybe the most complicated and engaging yet, as she seeks to adapt Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which examines racism in the United States and the instruments in place to establish social hierarchies, into a film.

Origin is an unusual effort that only works in bits and goes, but once DuVernay gets all the pieces in place and unifies Wilkerson’s views, it comes together in surprising ways.


Aunjanue Ellis plays Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Wilkerson’s editor (Blair Underwood) suggests she listen to the 911 recording from the night Trayvon Martin was slain, as this appears to be something Wilkerson would like to write about. But, as she considers her next project, she is confronted with a year of grief, and her investigation into the sort of bigotry that led to Martin’s death extends into a study of prejudice and racism throughout eras and civilizations.

Origin is an unusual novel to adapt for the film in this fashion, and it’s easy to see DuVernay (who also penned the script) channelling Nicolas Cage in Adaptation to do it. Unfortunately, DuVernay tries to make this premise work for the bulk of Origin. We spend a lot of time with Wilkerson and her husband (Jon Bernthal), her mother (Emily Yancy), and her closest friend (Niecy Nash-Betts) while she decides whether or not to publish the book. The opening act simply asks the viewer to forget they’re witnessing a cinematic version of a book that Wilkerson is debating whether or not to write.

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However, as Wilkerson begins to piece together the ideas that would eventually form “Caste,” DuVernay introduces fundamental concepts that everyone watching Origin should already be familiar with. Wilkerson, for example, has discussions on comparing the Nazi banner to the Confederate flag or how slavery encouraged Nazism. Origin hits on rather obvious topics in its attempt to call attention to racial history and how it affects the past and present—as though DuVernay feels the need to offer us a CliffsNotes version of our own racist history.

As a result, there are long parts when Origin lags as it strives to cover a lot of territory. But it all starts to come together when Wilkerson begins to genuinely put the book together. Wilkerson’s major focus is on slavery in America, as well as Nazi Germany’s and India’s caste systems, and how they have interacted. In the third act, DuVernay expertly weaves these concepts in and out of each other, as we witness Wilkerson’s thesis become something she can prove and connect the connections to.

As a result, Origin concludes with what appears to be a supercut of the most depressing ideas ever brought to the screen, as we see a young German man and his Jewish partner captured by the Nazis, interspersed with footage of slaves being crammed together in ships, mixed with the horrific treatment of the Dalit people of India, and all wrapped up with Trayvon Martin. We spend most of Origin watching Wilkerson and DuVernay prepare, but in the last third, Origin serves us the dinner they’ve been making, and it’s delicious.

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This final portion is also the most effective because, rather than discussing broad principles that are already pretty well-known, DuVernay provides clarity to these ideas and how they interact. One of the film’s strongest portions is a personal narrative of a man who, as a child, played on a baseball team with one Black member, and his tragic recall of what happened when the squad went to a public pool. This personal lean makes these ideas a lot more effective, and by giving these ideas a face, DuVernay discovers what works in this story—it’s simply too late.

This excellent ending just doesn’t make up for how shaky the rest of the film is, and given how expertly 13th elaborated on tough ideas and enormous issues, it’s odd that DuVernay didn’t try to adapt it as a documentary. Origin is an intriguing experiment, but it’s also a fundamentally flawed one that doesn’t quite work.

The film frequently feels more like a biography of Wilkerson than an exposition of her ideas, but Ellis does a good job of portraying her mindset in deciding to write this book with the personal circumstances that finally made this feel like a narrative she wanted to tell. But it’s Nash-Betts who steals the show, injecting fun and personality into a film that may be reduced to statistics and notions. Bernthal and Yancy are both pretty effective at adding to Wilkerson’s tale, particularly when Yancy explains the worries of living in a world where you have to act in order to stay safe.

DuVernay took a big risk with Origin, and she deserves credit for it, but the picture doesn’t work as well as it could. The intensity of the ending makes the voyage worthwhile, but it’s a bumpy path to get there.

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