How do you adapt a thesis into a movie? While nonfiction books are often turned into motion pictures, typically there’s a narrative to follow and particular characters involved. In the case of Origin, from reliably talented director Ava DuVernay, the 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents isn’t explicitly – or exhaustively – the source material. Instead, it’s the life and work of author Isabel Wilkerson and the circumstances that led her to conduct intensive research to find a connective thread between three seemingly different systems of discrimination and dehumanization.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor stars as Wilkerson, who is approached to look into the death of Trayvon Martin but declines the project to focus on helping to transition her mother (Emily Yancy) into an assisted-living facility with the help of her devoted husband Brett (Jon Bernthal). When she finds herself facing unimaginable loss, Wilkerson takes a renewed interest in examining the root causes of Martin’s tragic and untimely death. What she believes and intends to prove is that racism in America, antisemitism in Nazi Germany, and the untouchable Dalit of India are all linked to caste.
There is a moment early on in Origin where Wilkerson is in Germany, dining with a colleague, Sabine (Connie Nielsen), who, upon hearing her arguments, responds defensively that slavery in the United States was designed to profit off of Black bodies, while Nazis sought to exterminate rather than subjugate the Jewish population. There are audiences that will similarly react with the sentiment that these experiences should not be compared and judged against one another, since they are inherently different and applicable in most cases to separate communities. Yet living in that discomfort is part of what makes this a compelling visual research project, a thoroughly-composed study that finds considerable support to back up Wilkerson’s claims.
Positioning Wilkerson as the protagonist of this film at times feels like a strange choice, since the goings-on in her personal life don’t feel all that relevant to the work that she’s doing. But it’s precisely the absence of those reliable elements that spurs her to dive fully into grasping something that’s much bigger than her, because those relationships were complicated by her mother’s memories of a segregated childhood and her husband’s skin color. Explaining what she’s discovered so far to her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) over a barbecue plate works perfectly fine as an informative device to fill audiences in on how her work is progressing.
What Origin does early on is to follow each investigation down its own rabbit hole, suddenly flashing back to pre-WWII Germany to take a closer look at the case of August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), a man famously photographed as the only one in a group of German workers not giving the Nazi salute, and his Jewish love, Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti). It’s jarring at first to be whisked away from modern times to this immersive period segment, but it soon becomes a reliable and surprisingly effective pattern for the film over the course of its 135-minute runtime. Such moments, which also feature the story of two couples, one Black and one white, documented in the book Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, are brought to vivid life and are among the most gripping elements of this educational film that smartly doesn’t feel solely like a lecture.
DuVernay has previously explored the history of institutional racism in America in films like Selma and 13th, and she is the perfect choice to bring Wilkerson’s work to the screen. By remaining tightly focused on Wilkerson’s life and just how fully she throws herself into each aspect of her research, it’s easy to become invested in that journey, even if its principles might clash with preexisting audience beliefs about society in three distinctly separate geographic locations. DuVernay treats her subject with sensitivity and respect, and Ellis-Taylor brings a vulnerability to the Pulitzer Prize-winning academic who hardly needs to be humble, given her considerable accomplishments. Even if the finished product might feel slightly too clinical to merit enthusiastic awards prospects, Origin will go far in reaching those who seek to understand if there is indeed some unifying root cause for hatred and discrimination all across the world.
Awards Potential: Best Actress (potentially), Best Original Screenplay
Box Office Potential: $20 million
Renewability: None, alhough Wilkerson’s other works could be adapted if this is a financial success.
Overall Score: B+
Origin will have a one-week exclusive engagement in NY and LA beginning December 8 before opening nationwide on January 19.
Cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts Emily Yancy, Finn Wittrock, Victoria Pedretti, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Carlos Blaaker, Vera Farmiga, Audra Mcdonald, Connie Nielsen, Blair Underwood, Nick Offerman, Stephanie March, Myles Frost
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Ava DuVernay
Producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes
DP: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production Design: Ina Mayhew
Costume Design: Dominique Dawson
Editor: Spencer Averick
Score by: Kris Bowers