ORIGIN | United States of America | 2023 | 130m | English, German
Starring: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood
Directed By: Ava DuVernay
Already established as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism, Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is confronted by the question of race once again when a colleague asks her to write about Trayvon Martin’s death. Her husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), encourages her to tackle the case, but she’s more interested in the core of where racial injustice comes from. After a tragedy forces her to reorient her life, Isabel begins a research project which spans the globe, as she travels to Germany and India where she investigates the disenfranchisement of Jewish people during the Third Reich and the marginalization of Dalit “untouchables.” While initially struggling to explain her theory to family and colleagues, Isabel breaks down a codified framework of dehumanization for her book, making the argument that race and caste aren’t simply synonyms.
Origin stands as a unique chronicle of just how intimate a journalist’s journey toward sharing a new idea with the world can be. DuVernay creates powerful cinematic images out of the stories that Wilkerson brought to light in her non-fiction work, and the dark moments of her personal life which informed its writing. It results in a deeply moving portrait of the enduring trauma caused by discrimination, and the work required to heal afterwards.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 5 out of 5
Origin is a masterful work of storytelling from the brilliant writer-director Ava DuVernay, featuring a truly exquisite performance from Aunjanue Ellis, ultimately making this without question DuVernay’s most powerful and best film to date.
Racism is a word used often in today’s society to describe reprehensible behavior towards or treatment of a group of individuals. In some instances, there is no question that the actions we would commonly refer to as being racist are racist, but are all actions we classify as racist truly racist? Or is there a larger, systemic societal structure at play that racism can be attributed to? That is the question that the ever talented Ava DuVernay unpacks in her latest film, which tells the story of American journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, while presenting the thesis of her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. It’s a truly visionary work of storytelling, seamlessly mixing Wilkerson’s thesis with the author’s personal story of love, loss, and a search for greater understanding, resulting in one of the most compelling, timely, and important films of the past decade.
After suffering great personal loss, writer Isabel Wilkerson embarks on a global investigation as she looks into the roots of racism in America. It’s a colossal subject to research, and one that leads in unexpected directions, but Isabel’s research not only transforms her as an individual, but results in her writing one of the most defining American books of our time.
Wilkerson’s book is a work of non-fiction exploring the caste system, the social stratification based on hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, and purity. It explores different cultures, countries, and time periods in human history, drawing parallels between different circumstances, and tying it back to caste, such as Nazi Germany, the experience of people of colour in the United States, and the caste system in India. Her book perfectly lends itself to a documentary, but DuVernay, in all of her wisdom, presents it in a narrative film, following Wilkerson’s personal life, the catalyst that led her down this research path, and her world wide search to try and answer her hypothesis. It’s nothing short of visionary as DuVernay expertly blends Wilkerson’s thesis, research and conclusions into her personal story, navigating the loss she faced and her relationships with friends and family as she researches the caste system. The exploration of Wilkerson’s life is raw, emotional, and beautiful, creating the heart of the film. At the same time, stories that Wilkerson uncovered during her research about other individuals researching this societal problem or illustrate the effects of the caste system are told, giving the audience valuable insight into the effects of the caste system. It adds a layer to the film, dramatizing what a documentary would tell viewers, creating an experience that is educational outside of the documentary format. Captivating, profoundly moving, and timely in its discussion on the experience of the African American experience in the United States, DuVernay has written an incredible screenplay and directed it to perfection, highlighting the interconnectedness between people that we as a race need to see before we can move forward from the caste system, ensuring that you won’t ever forget Wilkerson’s story, or her findings after watching this film.
DuVernay’s writing and direction makes this extraordinary piece of storytelling possible, but the film is nothing without the sensational performance of Aunjanue Ellis as Isabel Wilkerson. Her presence on screen commands your attention as she gives a powerful performance. Ellis digs deep in the emotional hurt that Wilkerson faced after the losses she faced before she started researching caste with a true vulnerability that pulls on your heart strings throughout the film. Simultaneously, Ellis brings an unwavering determination, tenacity, and thirst for understanding that makes watching Wilkerson’s research an unforgettable experience. It’s truly a transcendent performance from Ellis that ranks among the best performances of the entire year, that is not only deserving of an Oscar nomination, but reminds audiences of what an unappreciated talent Ellis is.
There is no stealing the film from Ellis’s incredible lead performance, but there is a great supporting cast alongside her in the film. Jon Bernthal is tender and loving as Wilkerson’s husband Brett, creating a beautiful and heartfelt relationship with Ellis on screen that is a critical part of Isabel’s story. Niecy Nash-Betts is outstanding as Wilkerson’s cousin Marion, delivering some of the funniest moments of the film. Her line about leaving the Jews and Nazi Germany alone to Isabel is a killer comedic moment that we have come to expect from Nash-Betts, but the warmth, compassion and more dramatic moments of her performance are sublime, making her the standout performance of the supporting cast. The rest of the cast is stacked with the likes of Vera Farmiga, Connie Nielsen, Finn Wittrock, Nick Offerman, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Blair Underwood and Victoria Pedretti, who are all excellent, though it is the always sensational Audra McDonald in a single scene performance that makes for one of the best moments of the entire film.
Given the globe spanning reach of Wilkerson's research, the film is shot globally on location, and it adds to the profound revelations of Wilkerson’s findings. Seeing Ellis walk through the streets of Berlin and visiting the Holocaust memorial adds authenticity and a deeper emotional resonance to the discussion of Nazi Germany in relation to the caste system, while the profound differences in circumstances in societal classes in the India sequences only emphasizes the effects of the caste system. The globe-trotting production helps Wilkerson’s conclusions hit home, as it is one thing to discuss them, but to see them captured on camera ensures the message is not lost.
Finally, the film would be nothing without Kris Bowers excellent musical score, helping to create the emotional undercurrent of Wilkerson’s story and research. Bowers’ work ensures that no narrative point is lost, but instead built up to make certain every moment connects with the audience.
Truly cementing herself as one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, Ava DuVernay is at the height of her game, wonderfully showcasing her cinematic talents in her latest film. From writing an intricate screenplay and directing to bring to life this incredible blending of one woman’s story and her entire findings on the societal structures that dictate how our society functions, all held together by a truly extraordinary Aunjanue Ellis, Origin is a visionary work of art from Ava DuVernay that is profoundly moving and informative, making for one of the year’s finest films.