‘Origin’: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Caste’ Biopic Turns Isabel Wilkerson’s Investigation Into a Stirring Human Journey

Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” challenges us to view oppression and inequality as something that runs much deeper than skin color. In the wake of BLM and a cultural reckoning with our country’s racist past, important films have emerged exploring the history of slavery and segregation. DuVernay takes the acclaimed book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson even deeper, creating a broad canvas about how societies build oppressive hierarchies. This is challenging material with so many avenues and layers, yet DuVernay finds a way to mold it into compelling drama. A classic challenge with a story of this nature is finding the right form to educate an audience while being conscious that movies are meant to grab us. This one does both.

Wilkerson is played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. She is introduced as an established journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the great migration of Black Americans to the North. It is 2013 and headlines are being dominated by the murder of Trayvon Martin, the young Black American shot by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic. Isabel’s editor, Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood), pushes her to write about the case. She doesn’t quite know what angle to take and it requires time. Isabel’s life involves a good marriage to Brett (Jon Bernthal) and searching for a proper assisted living home for her elderly mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy). When some setbacks and losses shake her world, Isabel decides to dive into a book approaching the Martin case from a broader perspective. She begins to look at the wider history, past and present, of caste systems, and how they illuminate the roots of a tragedy like the senseless killing of someone for no reason other than who they happen to be.

“Origin” is a work of great originality that finds its form in a classic style. DuVernay’s screenplay takes Wilkerson’s book and fashions it into a journalistic adventure and intimate drama. The author’s research into caste takes on the rhythm of other films where a writer tries to track a killer or solve a mystery. This director proved long ago she knows how to turn nonfiction into strong cinema with “Selma,” about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. In the documentary “13th,” DuVernay chronicled the racist structure of our incarceration system. For Netflix, she directed the limited series “When They See Us,” about the Central Park Five. Like Spike Lee or Adam McKay, DuVernay wants to use her privilege as a filmmaker to tell stories that matter. She wants to make us think and reflect on history and our state as a society. Even more admirable, she doesn’t water down the themes being explored.

Isabel’s journey in this film, like the book, is used to make connections we rarely consider. “Origin” globe trots, connecting the dots between the way countries develop cruel forms of discrimination resulting in violence and genocide. First, the writer looks at Nazi Germany, where the Third Reich viewed American race laws as a model for how to approach Jews. It’s not an easy connection to make because rarely do we develop internationalist mindsets, blinding ourselves to how human cruelty links us all. While eating with German friends in Berlin, Isabel is surprised when they push back against her thesis. She tries to compare how in Germany, Nazi symbols are outlawed, whereas in the U.S., the Confederate flag is still a feature in the South. Sure, argue her friends, but Hitler’s aim was to literally wipe out the Jews from extinction while slavery was the brutal use of people as property to generate wealth. What they miss is that in both cases, caste is the underlying issue because one group deemed another as naturally inferior. Side stories are used to illustrate the idea, like a German couple where the woman is a Jew, who try to quietly resist the fascist state’s laws against interracial marriage. For a long time, many U.S. states had similar laws in place.

The journey continues into India, where Isabel studies that country’s infamous caste system where the Dalits, formerly called “the untouchables,” are treated as an inferior class made to clean public toilets, known as manual scavenging, with oil as the only allowed protection. It’s particularly important for Isabel’s research because here she can prove that caste systems are not always dependent on race. She links up with Dalit professor Suraj Yengde (played by the actual academic) to gain insights. DuVernay’s strengths as a filmmaker shine in all this material because it never feels like an academic seminar. With cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, these stories and discoveries take on poetic, human dimensions. An unforgettable sequence flows between the inside of a slave ship, as chained Africans endure disease and storms, with a Dalit diving into a pool of excrement to clean a public toilet in India. Emotionally it’s hard to take, but necessary. Yengde makes the urgent statement that the Dalits are in the same struggle as Black Americans, Palestinians, Indigenous people in Latin America and any other community facing violent oppression. 

As her ideas take absorbing shape, Isabel as an individual is given enough space to make us care for her as a person beyond the inquisitive writer. She thrives despite personal losses and doubters. Her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash) gives her tips on making the material accessible to the average reader. Tense but endearing conversations with Ruby capture that experience of trying to discuss with your parents a system that shaped them, but which they didn’t wholly understand. These personal detours flow well into the additional storylines, like the true story of four anthropologists, two Black and two white, who ventured into the Jim Crow South to chronicle an American caste system from within. They did this after witnessing book burnings in Nazi Germany first hand. In a stunning crescendo of editing and lucid writing, DuVernay builds the narrative to demonstrate how all of this links to that moment when Trayvon Martin was shot for being a Black kid in a hoodie, walking through the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.

Films like “Origin” are rare and demand long discussions afterwards, which forms part of their worth. We like to decry racism because everyone can agree it is bad, but inequality cuts much deeper. We have a society now where just ascending along class lines becomes impossible if you didn’t go to college and in some cases to the “right” college. We judge each other on status and appearances. As much progress as we like to think we’ve made, there’s a terrible will to build barriers and reasons to dislike each other. DuVernay uses Wilkerson’s book as a starting point to force the viewer into a necessary conversation with themselves and the wider world. It’s an exhaustive film, because it needs to be. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor carries us through it all with a performance of intelligence and compassion, which are beyond essential for this story. This is a movie about where we come from and what it means to be human, with all of the shame and hope that entails.

Origin” releases Jan. 19 in theaters nationwide.