In Ava DuVernay’s seventh feature, Origin, which premiered tonight at the Venice Film Festival, the exploration of caste systems as a mode of oppression takes center stage. Written by DuVernay, the film is adapted from the latter’s book, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. The narrative delves into the deep-seeded intricacies of caste and how it underpins much of society’s discrimination, sometimes transcending even race. The film stars Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, and includes performances by Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood and Connie Nielsen.
The film starts with a young Black teenager at a convenience store buying snacks. He leaves the store and puts on his hoodie and begins walking through a suburban neighborhood while talking on his cell phone. He notices that a car is following him around and won’t leave him alone. Then it switches to the next day where Isabel Wilkerson (Ellis-Taylor) is waking up her elderly mother while her husband Brett (Bernthal) is taking out the trash. They are taking her to a facility for the elderly since she can no longer live alone.
Isabel is a former journalist turned Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is holding a seminar about Nazi Germany and the people who defied them. After the seminar, Isabel runs into Amari (Blair Underwood) who asks her to write something about the Trayvon Martin murder. Isabel doesn’t want to go back to investigative journalism and wants to continue writing books. The man opts to send her the 911 audio of the incident, but she’s naturally hesitant about committing to anything. Isabel runs into Amari again, but after the encounter she listens to the tapes which does stir up emotions and a need to dive further into why it happened. After two personal tragedies of her of her own, she finds purpose in seeking knowledge related to connections between the USA, Germany and India in regards to racism and caste systems.
Wilkerson’s theory, as articulated in her book and portrayed in the film, draws parallels between American slavery, the Holocaust, and the plight of the Dalit ‘untouchables’ in the Indian caste system. The magnitude of these links presents a poignant revelation that Nazis studied the American Jim-Crow laws, which served as a foundation for the horrors of the Holocaust. According to the film, this shocking fact is deftly tied to the Indian caste system, spotlighting the pervasive ideas of superiority and inferiority that have plagued societies across the world. By doing so, it manages to establish connectivity between these oppressive systems.
As Isabel embarks on her journey, the film exposes viewers to the very personal battles Black women face daily – navigating the treacherous waters of racism and microaggressions. While on her travels, we see Isabel experience some pushback for her opinions. In the face of this, Isabel internalizes it, instead of firing back. It may sound like a cop-out to some, but it displays what Black women often deal with in the face of discrimination or microaggressive behavior. The things people say in these discussions can be so shocking it will leave one speechless.
As a viewer, be prepared for the visceral brutality of the portrayal of racial and ethnic trauma as these scenes are distressing as hell. There is usually pushback when these types of visuals are present, thankfully, it’s not there for shock value. The film wouldn’t be able to function without these visuals because the audience needs to see the physical comparisons up close. These in-your-face moments can be an effective tool of education, when used correctly.
However, Origin does experience some narrative lapses. There is the occasional sway into preachy territories diving into obvious White supremacist 101 history lessons that, although significant, made me wonder who those moments are for. I also do think the story would have benefited from more discussions about the intersections of race and caste as there is an even broader discussion to have in the arena.
Origin is steeped in DuVernay’s signature grain visuals, grounding the film in a palpable reality. Simultaneously, she integrates hints of surrealism, crafting a world that feels both familiar and uncanny. Her directorial prowess shines especially in the way she captures family dynamics and manages large crowd scenes with an unwavering hand. But perhaps the film’s most significant triumph is its casting. DuVernay sidesteps the allure of A-listers, opting instead for genuine actors. The resulting chemistry, particularly between Ellis-Taylor, Bernthal, and Nash-Betts, is palpable, explosive, and undeniably powerful. And Ellis-Taylor, portraying Isabel, handles these situations with a grace that is more than they ever warrant. Her performance is both compelling and, at times, heart-wrenching.
DuVernay is at her best when allowed to mold the cinematic environment without studio influence or a boardroom full of men telling her how to create a narrative. While it occasionally meanders into didactic terrains, it remains an essential watch for those looking to understand the world’s deeply entrenched systems. This film is ambitious, dare I say, radical, venture that highlights the horrors of caste and its intersections with race. Hollywood needs films that make radical proclamations to give audiences something new to chew on. With her unique visual style and a powerhouse of performances, Ava DuVernay continues to establish herself as one of the most vital voices in contemporary cinema.
Distributors: J4A, Array
Release date: September 1, 2023
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Ava DuVernay and Isabel Wilkerson
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Connie Nielsen, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
Running time: 2 hr 15 min
Content Source: deadline.com