ReviewsMovies

‘Origin’ Lets Ava DuVernay Explore Racism, Hope

'Selma' director doesn't hold back in film overloaded with cultural themes

Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” is an audacious epic about where the root of racism lies, how it has continued to manifest itself for centuries and why we have a responsibility to recognize and not allow it to continue.

Based on “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” the 2020 bestselling book by Isabel Wilkerson, this film adaptation stars Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson and is about the creation of the book and the forming of her thesis.

ORIGIN - Official Teaser Trailer - Coming Soon

The story begins with the killing of Trayvon Martin, though the incident ultimately becomes a smaller part of the narrative’s overall design. Wilkerson is introduced as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who is urged by a colleague (an always welcome Blair Underwood) to write about the Martin case.

It spurs Wilkerson to not only dig far beneath the surface of the incident but to investigate the historical connection of how caste systems, ranging from the U.S. to Germany and India, have created environments where outsiders are controlled and deemed lesser than by those around them.

We watch as Wilkerson journeys far outside of her comfort zone to learn the backbone of her thesis (she travels alone to distant lands while her personal life at home is in a fragile state).

I’ve come full circle with how I feel about DuVernay, whose 2014 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. historical drama, “Selma,” was a masterpiece (and under-promoted by its studio). Showcasing a terrific lead performance by David Oyelowo as Dr King and directed with confidence and fire by DuVernay, it wound up one of the last films to sneak into its calendar year and emerged a potent, engrossing look at its subject.

Unfortunately, DuVernay followed it up with the awful “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018), an oversized failure that just didn’t work.

“Origin” is another massive undertaking, and it certainly works. As a filmmaker, DuVernay has once again put all her cards on the table and made a work that demands to be discussed and pondered.

The temptation I wrestled with for much of the film was to dismiss it as overly didactic and self-congratulatory. “Origin” is a lot to take in and will be too much for some.

Since the film is so dialog and idea driven, I wondered why DuVernay didn’t simply make the subject into a documentary?

Considering DuVernay’s impactful prior documentary “13th”(released in 2018 and exploring prison systems), the format may have provided an easier means of compartmentalizing all of Wilkerson’s insights and discoveries.

In addition to flashbacks portraying key moments from Wilkerson’s life, there’s also scenes depicting segregation in the south, the rise of Nazism in Europe and current human horrors taking place in India.

A lengthy discussion is had comparing the suffering of African-American slaves to Jews during the Holocaust. There’s also a montage with graphic, horrifying reenactments of an African slave ship interspersed with the Holocaust.

Stan Walker - I AM (official video) from the Ava DuVernay film "Origin"

There’s a moment where a woman explains how revealing her name resulted in a painful exchange – why wasn’t this depicted? There are times when the multiple flashbacks look less than vivid reenactments and scenes from movies – a Nazi book burning looks oddly like a similar scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989).

On the other hand, a sequence involving a little league team finding one of its teammates enduring inexcusable behavior in broad daylight is harrowing.

An inspired touch was having Harvard scholar Dr. Suraj Yengde play himself. The central plotline of Wilkerson’s journey gets a lot of mileage not just from Ellis-Taylor’s impressive performance but from successfully depicting her romance with her husband Brett (a scene-stealing Jon Bernthal).

On the other hand, a single scene with Nick Offerman as a MAGA hat wearing plumber gets points for not going the way one would expect, but does the movie really need it? Isn’t the film already overloaded with provocative topics and material?

As a film exploring the pain inflicted by racism and the hope that a new generation can rise above it, this reminded me a little of Lawrence Kasdan’s insightful, messy “Grand Canyon” (1991).

“Origin” is sometimes like sitting next to a scholar at a coffee shop while they verbalize a lengthy thesis statement. Everything comes together compellingly in the third act, and I concluded the film engrossed and exhausted by what it has to say.

Is it entertaining? Indeed, it is, as well as made with passion and urgency. DuVernay’s film can be frustrating and overwhelming, but I found it a challenge worth taking and discussing at length afterward.

Three Stars

8 Comments

  1. Are you sure Wurst is even the right person for this site? All I’m getting from this movie is “America bad, Whites bad”

    1. Barry is a smart, enthusiastic film critic with a keen eye for detail, culture and excellence. We may not agree on politics, but I won’t let that come between his commentary and the site. HiT is right-leaning, full stop. The site also is open to other ideas/opinions and I won’t censor him for the times we may disagree.

      1. Yeah, maybe I was a little too judgemental there, I’m often used to yours and other’s stuff more, so there’s that

      2. Respectfully: he writes almost as much as you do here, so this goes beyond “open to other ideas/opinions”. I often read people I disagree with, but this is different. Wurst’s writing reveals a critic more devoted to being accepted by liberal elites than to carefully examining their work. He excuses almost anything in the name of art, and worse, he goes beyond mere toleration of clearly unethical or false practice and instead lauds it because it’s “artistic”.

        He represents this site almost as much as you do, and that’s a bad look. His takes are uniformly left-leaning, often lack nuance, and directly promote erroneous examination of concepts and ideas. He’s even spoken highly of films that are basically just pornography, as if they’re high art.

        Appealing to diversity of opinion isn’t an excuse to showcase all viewpoints as equally valid, because they aren’t. Libertarianism is just a fancy version of hiding in a hole while the world burns down around us. Trying to avoid right-leaning cancel culture or gatekeeping can be done correctly, but it’s not correct to allow enemies at the gate to come *in* through the gate so they can deliver propaganda (even if they don’t believe that’s what they’re doing). Instead we have to acknowledge that some things are unacceptable, and saying so isn’t a cancel “culture”; it’s simply acknowledging objective morality and the need for boundaries. Where anything goes, nothing stays. We can discuss what does and does not fit into objective morality. That’s “disagreeing over politics”. But we can’t discuss things like movies, games, etc., in an ethical context if we haven’t done the first step of agreeing on a standard.

        At the end of the day, it’s your website and you can do what you want. I found you through HotAir, and I enjoy coming here daily to see what new take you have on the industry. But the more Mr. Wurst is featured, the less I want to check back in, which is a shame because your work here is intelligent and thoughtful, and takes on lesser known topics and issues. I know you can’t do it all yourself, but I hope you find someone else for your B team soon. Wurst can go to Screen Junkies or Vox or a hundred other sites and be perfectly at home, but the reasonable (I don’t say “right leaning”, but merely reasonable) culture websites with decent writing, and not simple rumor mongering or “Angry Man Syndrome”, can be counted on one hand.

        Protect the brand. Dump Wurst off at the nearest substack and find someone less interested in kiss-ass art baiting.

  2. After what Ava Duvernay did to my beloved children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, I will never watch one of her movies, no matter how highly rated it may be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button