Ava DuVernay’s Provocative Race Drama ‘Origin’ Is Far Too Ambitious

Photo Courtesy of J4A and Array
Photo Courtesy of J4A and Array

VENICE, Italy—Origin, the new film by Ava DuVernay, is essentially an exploration of the genesis of and ideas in Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 non-fiction book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent—a text which argues that caste is a more useful organizing concept to describe power hierarchies around the world, than race and racism. That’s a bold and perhaps controversial contention, which makes it a tricky subject for a narrative film, as opposed to a documentary. The film’s disjointed execution bears that fear out, in a series of vignettes stuck together with glue and masking tape, taken from history, academia, and Wilkerson’s own life. To say that that makes for a film of variable quality would be an understatement.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning writer (we know this because people say to her, “You are a Pulitzer-winning writer!”) who is inspired to write the book by the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012. A journalist friend passes her the as-yet unreleased recordings of the event, asking her to write an article about it for his newspaper: Wilkerson, going through difficulties with her aging mother and the sale of her house, is instead moved to start work on a far more expansive work. The film then depicts her arguing, to a white friend at a party, that racism is a limited and limiting concept, because it describes too many functionally different attitudes and behaviors.

Origin’s quite mealy explication of the text on which it is based frequently impairs the film, such as in a scene where Wilkerson explains to friends that, whereas the swastika is illegal in Germany, in the United States the confederate flag, which is the United States’ equivalent of the swastika, can still be seen in many places, including the then official flag of Mississippi. Her friends solemnly explain that, on the contrary, Germany no longer contains any monuments to Nazism. This all feels quite Racial History 101: Who are these grown-up people having this sort of conversation over dinner in the 2010s? The film repeatedly oversimplifies Wilkerson’s polemic, dumbing down the argument for an audience that may well start to feel patronized.

At other times, the film leaves us with more questions than it can answer—like Wilkerson’s apparent contention (which the film does not criticize or deepen) that the Holocaust was not rooted in race, since Jews are mostly white; therefore, Nazis had to racialize them in order to attack them. Considering how contentious this discussion can be—figures like Whoopi Goldberg have come under fire for such assertions—that Origin fails to engage with it further is a glaring issue, indicative of a script that doesn’t want to probe more deeply into Wilkerson’s actual ideas.

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Origin can’t pick a mode and stay with it, so it leaps between Wilkerson’s life with her white husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal, reliably good) and her investigation of casteism in India, or visits to the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, where Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor duly walks around with sadness in her eyes. In between these scenes, we get reconstructions of examples of caste as figured in the book: the lives of a Jewish/Gentile couple in Nazi Germany, and a look at the research on southern race and class in the 1930s by the Black anthropologist Allison Davis. Neither of these segments properly come to life, because they are so fitful and inconclusive; a similar passage about the exclusion of a Black child from a swimming-pool in the 1950s, should by rights be unbearably poignant and hard-hitting, but DuVernay drops the ball by filming the sequence in honeyed, glossy tones, and having Wilkerson lie down next to the child in the sun, in an imagined moment of contemplation. That is too syrupy by far, for a book with bold, unflinching ideas.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor gives a strangely muted, inexpressive performance as Wilkerson, who seems rather dreamy and drowsy throughout, reacting very slowly or even imperceptibly to various developments and revelations. The film indulges in a similarly milky tone when looking at Wilkerson’s life, especially her relationship with her mother, which is all misty gazes and fondness. Surely somebody in the family had a scintilla of life force?

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Not everything in Origin is disastrous: There are fine, lived-in supporting performances by Audra McDonald and Niecy Nash-Betts, and one does intermittently get the sense that Wilkerson’s book must have some stimulating ideas. But overall, there is a lack of flavor here, a lack of shape too, and too much extraneous faffing around with scenes where autumn leaves fall in slow motion. A documentary, examining the eight pillars that Wilkerson describes as holding up caste systems worldwide, investigating Nazi Germany, the deep South in America, and the Varna culture of India, could have made for a riveting watch—but instead, we’re doomed to watch Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor scrawling “Dehumanization” on a white board.

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