Ava DuVernay's "Origin," a rumination on racial and caste theory, is merely a framework for a movie.
One of the many foolish things the social media age has wrought is the inability to discern a great film from a bevy of abbreviated, compelling ideas that don’t make up a single cohesive thought. That’s how a lot of people have come to understand and discuss complex truths — through bursts of cursory statements that only lead to other, unrelated discussions.
This isn’t synonymous with quality art. And since we’re being honest, it doesn’t really make for productive conversations either. But that’s the era out of which many movies and TV shows, including Emerald Fennell’s vapid “Saltburn” and Sam Levinson’s equally hollow “The Idol,” were born and have in many cases thrived.
Many of writer-director Ava DuVernay’s big narrative features struggle with that same issue. Her latest, “Origin,” is no exception.
While some of her white counterparts’ work subsist on “vibes only” formulas, DuVernay, who is Black, has carved almost an entire narrative film career out of narratives that merely point out prejudice and too often reduce characters to symbols (of oppression? resistance?) rather than actual people.
For instance, 2014’s “Selma” scarcely propped up myth-like historical figures, while 2018’s “A Wrinkle in Time” bafflingly tried to do too much and too little at the same time. To that end, it’s easy to see why DuVernay might have been considered suitable to adapt Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestseller “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which offers a complex theory on race and the global caste system.
As Isabel Wilkerson, the typically great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor has a lot to grapple with in "Origin," but that's not enough to overcome a floundering narrative.
Wilkerson’s book was the object of renown, but it’s also been criticized for flattening certain matters and highlighting already-understood issues without moving the conversation forward. And much of DuVernay’s film work suffers from the same issue.
Maybe that’s why the filmmaker decided to make not a strict adaptation of Wilkerson’s book, but rather a movie about the author essentially coming up with the ideas for it.
But that calls for DuVernay creating a Wilkerson character who could guide the audience through her complex thoughts, and take viewers along as she travels the world — particularly India, where caste is a defining aspect of life — to prove that caste, not merely racism, is the root of the problem, and that it’s something we all share.
If you’re already lost just reading that, you might not survive this movie. DuVernay can be commended for taking on an ambitious concept. Indeed, she was commended in September, when “Origin” received a nine-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. But that would be more meaningful if the movie actually came together.
For one thing, building complex characters isn’t exactly the director’s strong suit. That’s compounded here by the fact that “Origin” has no actual story, and that it’s based on a book of labyrinthine theory and less about a singular person grappling with said theory.
Emily Yancy and Jon Bernthal play characters who seem to be important in Isabel's life, but who are drawn in a way that do little to inform her character.
If you still can’t quite fathom what “Origin” is actually about after reading this far, that’s because it’s ultimately about nothing at all. It also doesn’t feel like a complete movie. But you deserve some plot detail, so, here goes.
DuVernay’s story relies mostly on Isabel, dutifully played by the typically great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Overwhelmed with grief after the deaths of her husband (Jon Bernthal) and her mother (Emily Yancy) ― two characters who barely inform who Isabel is, and to whom the film otherwise pays little attention ― Isabel embarks on a quest to demystify the subject of race.
Actually, that’s not completely true; it’s not just those familial losses that drive Isabel. The story kicks off shortly after Trayvon Martin’s killing, an event that understandably disturbs Isabel and one that DuVernay inexplicably depicts in full at the top of the film, even using the actual 911 calls. She does this, I guess, for emphasis? But it only manages to feel gratuitous.
Many audiences, particularly fans of DuVernay’s work, are likely familiar with what happened to Martin. Therefore, it’s not necessary to recreate it on screen, either to compel your audience or propel the character. But subtlety isn’t really in DuVernay’s wheelhouse.
The message is usually what’s at the forefront, even when it’s not clear what that message is. At one point, Isabel is cleaning out her mother’s house and calls for a plumber (a random Nick Offerman) who comes by wearing a MAGA cap. The camera makes sure to focus on his hat, and Isabel can’t really look away. But nothing is said about it.
For one of its most visually stunning scenes, "Origin" recollects the 1930s Nazi book burnings in Germany.
They just start talking about each other’s dead parents. Then we move on from that scene, bafflingly.
What “Origin” lacks in plot, it makes up for with ponderings on race and caste on a global scale that it wants the audience to consider as well. We see Isabel’s travels and conversations across the world to learn more, most impressively illuminated through production design in these locations.
The film covers everything from Nazi Germany studying America’s Jim Crow laws to enforce their own system of oppression to the way colorism affects the caste system in India similarly to how it does in the U.S. All of this comes from Wilkerson’s research, and it buoys “Origin,” albeit shakily.
It’s just... it’s just that it’s a lot. That’s not only to say the theses are heavy. Turning Wilkerson’s book into a narrative expedition to understand race creates a sense that it’s going to perhaps solve the issue by the end of the film. What makes Wilkerson’s work so intriguing is that it provokes thought and conversation. (In 2020, you really couldn’t go anywhere without someone mentioning this book.)
“Origin” doesn’t really have the same effect, because the protagonist aspect and the contemplative theory are both too slim. The contents of the book themselves deserve a much closer, more complicated study. Perhaps a documentary where these ideas could really breathe would have been more effective.
While DuVernay can be commended for taking on the ambitious "Origin," it would be more meaningful if the film had successfully cohered.
Devising a narrative about these didactic ideas shortchanges both the story and the ideas.
The moments where “Origin” becomes more interesting, and examines these things closely, come few and far between, in engrossingly challenging and untidy exchanges. One example is when Isabel is in dialogue with Sabine (Connie Nielsen), a Jewish German woman who balks at what she perceives as Isabel conflating enslaved Black Americans with the Holocaust.
Coincidentally, Sabine also tells Isabel that “a framework is not a book,” and the same is true of “Origin.” It’s not quite a film.
Still, those messier conversations that make both Isabel and the audience a little uncomfortable are the one area where “Origin” really soars. Because, yes, race and racism, as well as caste, are far more complicated than is often discussed colloquially. And they need to be portrayed that way. In fact, we all could take that pointer amid today’s rampant virtue signaling.
Even a conversation at a cookout between Isabel and her loving cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) captures the slipperiness of Isabel’s theories. (Marion says something along the lines of “Explain this to me like I’m four,” and you can’t help but laugh at that.)
It’s always fascinating to watch a character — and, often, a filmmaker — tug away at an idea and not rest until it’s formulated. That’s real. But “Origin” never feels fully formed, despite Ellis-Taylor’s touching performance. The character isn’t well developed, and neither is the story.
Despite its fascinating premise, "Origin" repeats some of the biggest issues in the filmmaker's previous work.
Awkwardly, the film has two subplots involving real-life couples involved in the resistance that could have been their own movies. They even have nuance, dramatic stakes, impact and endings.
One of these stories concerns Irma Eckler and August Landmesser (Victoria Pedretti and Finn Wittrock) in 1930s Nazi Germany. The other is about Elizabeth and Allison Davis (Jasmine Cephas Jones and Isha Blaaker) in the Jim Crow South.
Their stories, even in this condensed form, are so riveting that it’s easy to get swept up in them. Watching them play out, you forget that they’re sprouting from Isabel’s research. And when the film returns to Isabel, it’s almost like, Ugh, this again.
“Origin” feels like it’s yearning for a story, but the one it has is scant. The movie gets lost trying to grapple with Wilkerson’s text, and forgets that it also has to be a complete narrative. Not a tidy one, especially not with this subject matter, but one that needs to abandon some things in the book in order to sail as a narrative feature. It still needs a three-dimensional protagonist and a supporting narrative to match.
Basically, it needed to do what it did with those two couples. Without that, “Origin” feels less like a movie and more like a draft of one.
“Origin” is in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand to select cities on Jan. 19.