by Philip Price
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal & Niecy Nash-Betts
Rated: PG-13 (thematic material involving racism, violence, some disturbing images, language & smoking)
Runtime: 2 hours & 21 minutes
Why do we do the things we do to one another? Maybe it's because I'm a fairly new father, maybe because I see the faces of a 9-year-old, 4-year-old and almost 2-year-old whom I am responsible for daily and they have softened me, but I can't see a movie that deals in even the tiniest infraction against an innocent child and not question not only why the collective "we" do the things "we" do, but how people can perpetrate such hatefulness and bigotry toward someone else, much less an innocent child who has not only done nothing wrong but also doesn't understand why there is a prejudice against them in the first place. Not to spoil anything about Ava DuVernay's latest, “Origin,” but while much of this fictional adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is focused on Wilkerson herself (portrayed by the great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as we follow along on her journey to research and write the eventual book many of the ideas in this film are based on, where “Origin” really flourishes is when it detours into the past and recreates these stories from throughout different stages in history that inform the present story Wilkerson is desperately trying to shape and make sense of. Undoubtedly, these detours are what will cause some critics and viewers to hasten toward thoughts that the film is disjointed and tonally uneven, but how DuVernay uses these reenactments to not only emphasize to the viewer the reality of these things Wilkerson is learning but – for my money – beautifully weaves them throughout are what make both the film’s narrative and Wilkerson’s arc feel whole. To use a tired turn of phrase, they complement one another in such a way that by the time we reach the final moments where these two strands of storytelling coalesce, I was moved to tears – asking myself the basic question of, “Why do we do the things we do to one another?”
Obviously, “Origin” is a rich text and is so largely because it is based around its protagonist venturing to many different places and interviewing many different people – often scholars – about the thesis of her work and testing whether her hypothesis holds up or not. This means there are a lot of dialogue-heavy sequences in which multitudes of ideas and opinions are voiced and thus there is nothing necessarily subtle about how DuVernay conveys Wilkerson's material, but it's clear she doesn't mean to be. All art is made with intent (whether the artist is aware of it or not) and DuVernay understands how to craft a piece that elicits her intended reaction in artful, intelligent ways but with “Origin” her intent was evident from the moment she decided to make this a non-fiction film rather than a documentary. In keeping with the lack of subtlety and very pointed discussions, DuVernay employs Niecy Nash-Betts as Marion - a close cousin and friend to Ellis-Taylor's Isabel - who acts as something of an audience surrogate. In a scene where Isabel and Marion discuss Isabel's central theory for her new book, Marion asks her to put her ideas into layman's terms, "Make it plain." Marion tells her. In response to this request to essentially justify why "Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient," Isabel introduces the idea of "caste" which is defined as a phenomenon of placing one group above another in terms of hierarchy with Wilkerson's novel specifically focusing on the consequences of its victims as well as who make up the presumed beneficiaries.
Isabel posits that considering oppression in such a way that doesn't centralize race is key to understanding the methodology of caste and how it has been used all over the world, in places where race was not a factor, but results in the same outcomes where we label racism the main cause in America. Caste is the result of building certain containers for certain kinds of people be it the Jews in Germany, the Dalits in India or Blacks in America. Despite the perception of inferiority, those who implemented such systems and built such containers knew these weren't inherently inferior people yet they magnified the myths of as much and set these perceptions in stone through the systems they created a la the law, healthcare, neighborhoods, the kind of work predominantly done by these groups, even down to the food associated with each to impose a belief in what and who was inferior and what was not.
Through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing about his trips to India and firsthand experience with caste in Ebony Magazine in 1959 after becoming familiar with former Dalit turned scholar and political leader, B. R. Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania), who understood the correlation between himself and the African-American experience in America, Finn Wittrock and Victoria Pedretti acting out forbidden love between a German (the "dominant" class) who denounced the Nazi movement and a Jewish woman in 1936, or Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas Jones who conducted largely unheard of social experiments that studied the American caste system and provided landmark material on interracial scholarship in Natchez, Miss. in the fall of 1933, there is an interconnectedness to this line of thought around the world and throughout history where cultures parallel one another in their attempts to either exterminate or subjugate certain groups of people. The building of these vignettes to exemplify the utilization of caste throughout history serves as gateways to Isabel's epiphanies about not only what the content of her book will consist of, but how she will structure it while DuVernay weaves this all together in something of a non-linear, almost experimental fashion herself; genuinely ingraining us in Isabel's life, her struggles and her tragedies, illustrating how - like all of us - she comes to both experience and learn about these new ideas and/or realizations through those closest to her. Isabel says to her editor (Vera Farmiga) early in the film, "I wanna be in the story, really inside the story." DuVernay takes this line of thought and materializes it, lending “Origin” a sense of discovery that both develops these complicated ideas through different points of view and also – and this is important – through the repetition of Isabel's central premise via multiple lenses. DuVernay's screenplay and direction deepen our understanding and comprehension in haunting ways not just of why and how these systems develop, but why this continues to happen and why it's possible it could happen again on the grand scales we often relegate to the past.
The obvious factors such as the cast being universally fantastic (I especially enjoyed Jon Bernthal's contributions) along with DuVernay's choice to shoot on 16mm, evoking the timeless feel of the film's broad journey across the globe and through different periods in the past are exceptional surface-level facets. Those things are easy to praise, and the praise is easy to understand, but while not to diminish DuVernay's technical accomplishments or the achievements of her ensemble, what is most impressive about “Origin” is that it succeeds in making a behind-the-scenes story the heart of the story. It is clear DuVernay wants to educate more than she does entertain here, and she finds a way to do so while not necessarily sacrificing the elements that engage audiences. By making Isabel the central figure of the story we are given a center, a core in what otherwise could be chaotic, and through this we can bear the ugliness and dehumanizing history that we've been made to believe was developed casually over time rather than expertly orchestrated as it seemingly turns out to be. The editing and, as a result, the pacing almost take us through too much too quickly as Ellis-Taylor encounters the likes of Connie Nielsen, Audra McDonald and (in the film’s weakest turn of curtness) a MAGA hat-wearing Nick Offerman as a Trump-supporting plumber – among others – who each provide some insight or illuminate a new perspective that Wilkerson then challenges herself to include and understand just as the film does the same with its audience. In one of her first speeches in the film, Wilkerson concludes a public speaking engagement centered around Wittrock's August Landmesser who defied the Nazi "heil" that had been made mandatory for German citizens by asking why he was seemingly the only man in an old photograph of a large crowd to not participate ... closing with the line, "Perhaps we can reflect on what it would mean to be him today."
We're not always aware of how the history we're participating in will be shaped by the scholars who look back on these moments for analysis and better understanding, but what “Origin” conceives of is this feeling, this inherent north star of a conscience that has told generations of people over centuries that one group of people deeming themselves as superior isn't permissible; the belief of a level playing field among us all being as innate as original sin - a contradiction for the ages. Choosing to see others for who they are and not for who we're told they are and ultimately undoing the routine and expectations of a society that has made the unnatural natural is DuVernay's primary objective. She calls out many lines of thought and many people in the film, but she first and foremost holds all of us accountable for allowing "racism" to become the default. This is, of course, followed by two hours of displaying that it was never about race, but about hierarchy and inferiority fueled by any agenda powerful enough to convince humanity of such hate; she begs us to see through the bullshit (and sometimes literal shit). In the final example of this, DuVernay highlights Alfred "Al" Bright as he attempted to celebrate a win with his little league team with a swim at the community pool in 1949. In this final 20-minute stretch DuVernay flexes her most poignant of muscles by explicitly showing what such hate is capable of, when it's not just through separation but superiority. When we remove the idea of degrading a whole group of people to make it easier to swallow and instead focus on the individual, the lack of humanity becomes concrete. As masterful, as revolutionary, and as agonizing as anything else American cinema has produced in recent memory, the final moments of “Origin” integrate every tool in its filmmaker's arsenal to crystallize the monsters born of these systems and the very tangible, repercussive nature of hate. There is something both new and old about “Origin,” something fresh yet steady, that delineates that while traditions and habits present themselves as two sides of the same coin in terms of established customs, it's never too late to begin breaking both.