Ava DuVernay’s latest film “Origin” ambitiously attempts to weave together journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s exploration of oppression and violence across cultures and eras into an emotional, thought-provoking drama. Rather than a by-the-numbers biopic or straight adaptation of Wilkerson’s book “Caste,” DuVernay experiments with mixing intimate personal portraits with sweeping historical reenactments to bring urgency and intimacy to complex ideas.
The result is an imperfect but compelling film that resonates more deeply in its small moments than its grand gestures. While the shifting timelines and formats don’t always fully cohere, DuVernay succeeds when she focuses less on educating and more on resonating. Moments where lead actor Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor channels quiet contemplation or deep anguish achieve the empathy and understanding that lend such weight to Wilkerson’s work. The film stumbles when it grasps for teachable applause lines, but soars when it sits with sorrow and tenacious hope.
Ultimately “Origin,” while not seamless, gets at emotional truths essential for this dialogue through Ellis-Taylor’s central performance and DuVernay’s ambitious vision. It may not find the elegant balance it seeks, but it pulls us along in a conversation vital to understand where we are so we can glimpse where we might go next.
Isabel’s Journey From Personal Grief to Global Truths
We’re introduced to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson as she basks in literary acclaim following the success of her book “The Warmth of Other Suns.” While facing pressure to begin her next work, she first struggles with the declining health of her aging mother. But just after moving her mother into assisted living, Isabel faces sudden tragedy – the unexpected death of her loving husband Brett.
Still deep in grief, she loses her mother as well. These painful personal losses drive Isabel to throw herself into writing once more, both as solace and livelihood. She begins formulating a thesis connecting acts of violence against young Trayvon Martin and activist Heather Heyer to oppressive hierarchies throughout history – not just racism, but entrenched social systems predating race.
Her initial book pitch about examining the Trayvon Martin killing through this lens falls flat. But supported by her editor, doting cousin Marion, and others, Isabel persists. She forges ahead to research links from American slavery and segregation to the Holocaust against Jews in Germany to India’s caste system against Dalits. Uncovering these unsettling global parallels renews her spirit even amidst wrenching contemporary tragedies faced by her loved ones.
By interweaving the personal and the systemic, the intimate and the sweeping, Isabel begins piecing together how dehumanizing “pillars” sustain uncompromising social structures across cultures and eras. Fueled by righteous anger and deep empathy, her writing explores how dominant groups perpetuate oppression according to invented differences – redefining racism as only one manifestation of this injustice.
Isabel emerges not just as a tenacious researcher, but a living conduit to connect grieving souls. DuVernay’s portrait reminds us that history’s crucial truths often originate from, and return to, our shared vulnerability.
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Examining the Roots That Connect Our Divides
At its heart, “Origin” wrestles with monumental questions of why we demonize and destroy across superficial lines of difference. The film presents two contrasting frameworks that attempt to explain global atrocities – racism and caste. Whereas racism centers race-based hatred and violence, caste digs deeper into social hierarchies predating racial constructs. Through Isabel’s eyes, we re-examine horrific oppression as products not merely of racism’s surface-level disdain, but of entrenched supremacist systems justifying cruelty through invented inferiority.
This revelation carries immense emotional weight. We witness Isabel push through debilitating grief to uncover these difficult truths, connecting barbarities against Blacks, Jews, Dalits, and other “lower castes.” Her work demands peering into humanity’s darkness – requiring tremendous labor to process and share these traumatic histories. Yet her bold framework also fosters hope, suggesting we might one day dismantle the corrosive pillars underlying all arbitrary division.
Importantly, Isabel’s thesis decenters whiteness in this dialogue. Her inquiries into racial violence notably shift focus away from white power toward questioning Latino perpetrator George Zimmerman’s perceived need to protect a largely white Florida neighborhood. Isabel reminds that oppression metastasizes beyond any one group, circulating through complicity and internalized superiority among non-white groups as well.
Through patient listening, Isabel overcomes defensive resistance even from loved ones. Each connection emboldens her vision. Her words touch hearts by starting from a place of mutual respect, not accusation. The film thus champions connection through curiosity – sitting with discomfort to advance collective understanding.
DuVernay powerfully concludes that though systems of injustice persist, we each possess power to change course through courageous empathy. Our shared vulnerability makes space for the daring conversations that write the next history. However gradual, this gives hope.
Capturing Truths Through Artistic Experimentation
DuVernay’s directing shines brightest when she embraces nuance over pedantry. Cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd films in textured 16mm to infuse even straightforward dialogue with organic intimacy. DuVernay also variates her visual style, interspersing these quiet moments with stunning montages and poetic reenactments of critical historical events – from slave ships to Nazi book burnings.
The most arresting sequences utilize lyrical edits and profound scores to channel philosophical ideas through pure emotion. A haunting montage set to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” deftly juxtaposes images of global suffering with Isabel’s realization of oppression’s connective tissue. In this way, DuVernay translates complex academic concepts into spiritual feeling, far more potent than any lecture.
She stumbles, however, when grasping for teachable parables. Heavy-handed scenes of Isabel lecturing a MAGA hat-wearing plumber or challenging a skeptical German scholar feel cloying and simplistic compared to the film’s more contemplative notes. These on-the-nose moments lose the nuance at the heart of Isabel’s message of mutual understanding bridging divides.
But at its best, DuVernay matches her epic themes with equally audacious vision. She fluidly intercuts intimate personal experience with vast historical tableaus in a daring style fusing empirical analysis and raw humanity. While not seamless, this fierce ambition mirrors Isabel’s own – to stare into the abyss but never abandon hope that collected voices might illuminate a less treacherous path ahead.
The stunning final sequence encapsulates this perfectly. Over sublime orchestral music, DuVernay lands on a transcendent note that soars above the film’s unevenness – the fundamental need to truly see injustice’s origins before we transform where we are going. However gradual, the conversation must continue.
Performances That Ground Complex Ideas With Raw Humanity
At the emotional core of “Origin” is lead actor Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s mesmerizing portrayal of Isabel Wilkerson. She carries this sprawling epic almost single-handedly, her weary but determined eyes anchoring every scene. We feel the gravity of Isabel’s losses through Ellis-Taylor’s subtle angles of grief, her slumped shoulders both bowed by sorrow yet resolved to seek meaning. She wears the intersection of global injustice with intimate suffering as weightily as chainmail.
When the cacophony of eras and atrocities risk losing resonance, Ellis-Taylor grounds us back in urgent humanity. Whether facing defensive skepticism from a friend, revisiting her mother’s declining health, or rediscovering passion with a new lover, she lets quiet revelation ripple across her face with captivating dignity. We are tethered to Isabel’s personal stakes through Ellis-Taylor’s profound well of strength and vulnerability.
She finds able support from Niecy Nash-Betts as Isabel’s confidante cousin Marion. Nash-Betts brings welcome respites of humor and plainspoken wisdom amidst the heady discourse. She functions as our on-screen anchor cutting through noise to the heart.
DuVernay also effectively employs historical reenactments of marginalized voices typically excluded from popular narratives. Scenes following a mixed-race anthropologist couple quietly investigating Jim Crow America or listening to a Dalit reformer in India give vivid dimension to Isabel’s global connections.
Occasionally these vignettes feel more like educational interludes than embedded drama. But Nick Offerman breaks through as a MAGA-capped plumber in a surprisingly nuanced sequence. Rather than mere Trumpian caricature, Offerman shows a man ingesting his own bitterness until recognizing his own complex pains. Their interaction holds resonances to Isabel’s message of mutual understanding as the only viable path forward.
Balancing Nuance With Accessibility
Any adaptation of heady non-fiction into mass entertainment risks losing complexity for simplicity’s sake. DuVernay deliberately makes some concessions toward clarifying Wilkerson’s academic ideas for mainstream audiences. She utilizes emotional biographical drama and splashy historical reenactments to ground Dense concepts in feeling. This makes Caste’s central thesis palatable and compelling without getting mired in scholarly discourse.
However, at times these techniques falter. Attempts to condense sophisticated notions into pithy dialogue scenes often feel heavy-handed, lacking the nuance that attracted readers to Wilkerson’s book in the first place. DuVernay struggles to reconcile sophisticated analysis with popcorn packaging.
Certain individual scenes distill down theories so bluntly they lose dimensionality. Aspects like the MAGA hat-wearing plumber lean into unproductive stereotypes rather than humanizing political divides. Such broad strokes underline the difficulties of balancing creative license with intellectual rigor.
One wonders whether utilizing a traditional documentary approach could have allowed more patient examination of the source material’s intricacies. But DuVernay intentionally avoids dry informational format in favor of the emotional resonance offered by traditional Hollywood biodrama. For mainstream impact, she accepts necessary simplification in order to grant these vital ideas cultural spotlight through the accessible frame of one woman’s inspirational journey.
While this tension between depth and clarity is not perfectly reconciled, DuVernay deserves praise for bringing immense ambition to the table. No easy answers emerge, but in wrestling with such weighty questions “Origin” advances a culture-shifting conversation – which Wilkerson notes is the critical first step.
An Imperfect Bridge To Essential Dialogue
As an enormously ambitious project, “Origin” unsurprisingly suffers uneven execution across its sprawling historical and tonal range. But its overarching achievements ring powerfully. Within missteps are vital conversations too rarely given such empathetic mass platform.
Despite disjointed narrative flow, with emotional through-lines often disrupted by documentary-style deviation, DuVernay succeeds through moral clarity. She makes no claims of authority or perfection, only opening channels for resonance. Ellis-Taylor’s tremendous lead performance grounds unsettled style experiments in urgent humanity through eyes that have seen immense tragedy yet never abandon deeper sight.
As with her subjects, DuVernay’s work deserves assessment by intention as much as execution. She does not erase the film’s periodic inelegance and pandering moments. But she also refuses to cling to comfort when bold questions call. The result lays bare all the uncomfortable growing left ahead – and the cost of that work negated for too long.
One leaves this imperfect vessel hopeful for the daring dialogues it invites. DuVernay has broken ground tilling soil for successors to plant promising new narratives. She fosters overdue reckoning so we might shift from stubborn cycles toward long-obstructed justice. Too long have these open wounds festered untreated; now at last we glimpse balm drawing nearer.
The conversation continues beyond any singular film. But the vulnerable compassion and conviction of DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor lend “Origin’s” voice lasting amplification. Through resonant humanity they model how we might face swollen chaos with heads high and arms open. We close this chapter, turn the page, and progress on.
Taking First Steps Through the Difficult Past Toward the Bright Horizon
As an exercise in social introspection, “Origin” carries immense power to prompt cultural awakening from ignorance or denial and into productive discourse. DuVernay’s choice of an uplifting rather than scolding tone lends the film lasting accessibility. Viewers contemplate injustice through Isabel’s spirit – her deep pain birthing greater compassion.
The key achievement is starting this dialogue with mainstream eyes and ears receptive. Flawed vessel aside, the conversation now accelerates. Already its call to reframe limited notions of oppressive systems evolves activist language and education around issues of inequality. “Origin” marks only one milestone in the eternal relay carrying human dignity forward.
Its greatest success comes from modeling dedicated listening and openness exemplified by Wilkerson and Ellis-Taylor onscreen. They remind that no matter how intimidating the distance ahead, each step makes way for the next. And shift by shift, embraced hands accumulate into unstoppable collective strength no hatred can oppose. Their work passes the torch now to audiences, scholars and citizens. Where we proceed stands wholly on whether we accept that vital summons.
Ultimately, while “Origin” has its flaws in execution, it succeeds enormously in resonance. DuVernay has crafted an ambitious, emotionally commanding portrait that brings urgent spotlight onto vital issues that demand airing in popular culture. Anchored by Ellis-Taylor's profound lead performance, the film translates Wilkerson’s academic ideas into broadly accessible insights bridging divides. Uneven but daring, “Origin” provides cinematic language to shift essential conversations too long mired in painful stagnation. It lights the path for generations carrying the still-distant dream into more clear-eyed fruition. The journey stretches beyond any singular film, but with Jones' courageous voice now amplified for popular ears, we walk forward on sturdier footing.
- Powerful lead performance by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
- Ambitious and expansive thematic scope
- Timely spotlight on vital social issues
- Accessible communication of complex concepts
- Strong emotional resonance achieved
- Beautiful cinematography and musical score
- Uneven narrative structure
- Occasional heavy-handedness
- Historical reenactments can feel detached
- Struggles to fully reconcile nuance and clarity
- Can come off as instructional