With the world becoming increasingly politicized and divided, one wonders how we got here. Oftentimes, the best way to understand our present is to analyse our past. Isabel Wilkinson does exactly this in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. Inspired by the book and the life of its author, Isabel Wilkerson, as she journeys through the research and creation of the book, comes Ava DuVernay’s latest film ‘Origin.’ DuVernay, whose previous work includes the BAFTA and Emmy winning documentary 13th, this time presents a narrative film that pays homage to her journalistic roots. Deeply moving and heart-wrenching, the film tugs both at the mind and the heart as it contemplates the complexities of modern human society through Wilkinson’s journey.

DuVernay played to her strengths, creating an enlightening narrative film that is based on a real person, a real book, and real issues, yet one that is still entertaining. The plot of the film follows Isabel Wilkinson, the author of Caste, played with great nuance by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she researches and writes her book after being inspired by a colleague to listen to the tapes of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Grappling with the question of trying to explain modern day race-related crimes in the US, Wilkinson develops a hypothesis that it is not race but rather caste that lies underneath a lot of issues in our modern day society. In order to back up her hypothesis she journeys to Berlin, Germany to research the Holocaust and New Delhi, India to dig into the history of the Dalit caste. Along the way she also deals with great tragedy in her personal life which challenges her work.  

Having experience in journalism and documentary filmmaking DuVernay’s direction and writing is the beating heart of the film as she balances the larger themes with Wilkinson’s own personal journey. Additionally, she weaves into the main plot specific stories from Nazi Germany, the Deep South in the US and 20th century India in a seamless way, bringing aspects of Caste to life without it feeling like a heavy handed history lesson. The way that we visually see the harmful effects of what Wilkinson is trying to prove is especially stirring as DuVernay shows us instead of simply lecturing us.

What further helps elevate the film are the great performances by the entire cast. As the lead Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor has a difficult task yet she rises to the occasion and perfectly embodies the struggle of a grieving woman intellectually driven to find answers in a messy world. Niecy Nash also delivers a career best role in the supporting role of Isabel’s cousin. Her careful blend of lightness and gravitas is the right balance in what is often a film dealing with heavy subjects. Perhaps the most impactful yet simple scene of the entire film is a conversation between Ellis-Taylor’s Isabel and Audra McDonald in a guest appearance playing Miss Hale who is interviewed by Wilkinson for her book. That scene perfectly encapsulates what great writing and great acting is. 

Despite the sadness and unfairness of the discrimination that we constantly are shown throughout the film, and one that mirrors our world, DuVernay ends on a message of hope. There is so much ugliness in the world, yet we can become better. Being based on a non-fiction book it’s a difficult task to adapt to a narrative film, but DuVernay does an excellent job. It’s a film that at times is hard to watch but one that needs to be seen. 

Origin premiered at the Venice International Film Festival on September 6th 2023 and released in cinemas on January 19th 2024 in the United States. It will be released in UK cinemas on March 8th 2024. 


Written by Dafne Mistrangelo

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