origin ava duvernay

Ava DuVernay’s film Origin recontextualizes the history of racism in America

2 out of 5 stars

With Origin, director Ava DuVernay (Selma) adapts Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book recontextualizes the history of racism in America as an aspect of a caste system, where Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars” of caste used to create a social hierarchy to maintain a system of oppression and control. Challenging material to adapt, DuVernay begins at the “origin,” i.e., the writing process for Wilkerson. The approach integrates biographical elements, as well as recreations from Nazi Germany, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, contemporary India and the American South.

In many ways, the film works in broad strokes. The ideas are interesting, and the performances are strong. DuVernay’s approach to investigating the artistic process is rich, at least in concept, as a means of understanding how the personal intersects with the social. It creates a layer of distance from the historical anecdotes that help shape these stories within the context of broader ideas. In many ways, it’s a film that aspires towards a formally and intellectually challenging framework, even if it ultimately falls flat. 

The experience of watching Origin grows increasingly frustrating as the film progresses, as the promise of its audacious formal approach gives way to incredible literal and conventional modes of engagement. While DuVernay recognizes that approaching the subject of caste within a fictional framework will require narrative problem-solving, she ultimately takes the easy way out. The need to create a film that will connect with a broad audience ultimately hampers its ability to be either great art or a vehicle for a compelling or rigorous framework on oppression. The movie feels like an appeal to fruitless empathy rather than an engine for transformation. 

Origin Ava DuVernay review
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

Several conversations within the film between Isabel and different family members encourage her to find relatable ways of engaging with ordinary people. Long discussions synthesizing some of her main arguments are simplified to connect with people outside academic, journalistic or activist circles. While sometimes laudable, it also often feels clumsy, particularly the constant insistence that the study of caste is not the study of racism. It’s meant to emphasize a universal understanding of systems of hierarchy and oppression, an argument present in the book (she writes, “Caste is the bones, race the skin,”) but this idea comes across as dismissive and defensive on screen. The approach to unfolding the concept of caste, rather than a critical engagement, too often falls into traps of appeasement that ease rather than challenge the audience’s conscience or guilt. 

Though the screenplay and direction flounder in its approach to the big ideas of Wilkerson’s work, DuVernay excels at portraying her intimate life. The film’s depiction of family, work and romantic love brims with tenderness. The performances, led by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson, capture an intimacy that feels ripped open, as if the sinewy flesh of the characters’ interior lives are laid bare for each other and us, with an unusual but appreciated sincerity. The warmth and care that Ellis-Taylor brings to her performance trickles into how we understand Wilkerson’s approach to writing and research, informed by more than just a deep curiosity but a deeply vulnerable sense of personal responsibility. 

The film cycles through moments that work and many that don’t. The lack of aesthetic consideration compounds the literal approach to ideas and events. It’s unclear why the film was shot on 16mm, as it doesn’t use celluloid textures or interpretation of light to elevate the approach. Considerations of framing and blocking feel secondary to employing very classical modes of narrative filmmaking, which doesn’t service the film’s biographical or ideological elements. Any other approach to the image would have been more compelling, whether purely functional or challenging narrative conventions. Instead, we’re left with a stylistic approach that pantomimes melodrama removed from the qualities that make that genre work. 

Overall, Origin is an incredibly frustrating movie. It veers into interesting territory but almost always pulls back before it can dive into something compelling or challenging. DuVernay had her work cut out for her on this project, and her attempt is laudable, even if the final product is flawed and frayed at the edges. We give very little room for major filmmakers to stumble, so it’s increasingly rare to see a film with so much money and talent also be so messy in its approach. And I’ll bet even the film’s biggest detractors might be willing to go out and check out Wilkerson’s book. ■

Origin (directed by Ava DuVernay)

Origin is now playing in Montreal theatres.

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