Origin – movie review

Writer and director Ava DuVernay has chosen an artistic interpretation of the work of Isabel Wilkerson in Origin. The film was inspired by Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

At the start of the film, Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) doesn’t know it, but she’s about to lose the two most important people in her life inside a year. And a third will follow not long after. All this happens soon after she has published her first novel, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That litany of disaster is more than most people could bear. And yet, in spite of everything that is crumbling around her, Wilkerson finds a way to pen her second book.

The trigger is provided by Times editor Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood). He prevails on Wilkerson to write an authoritative piece in the wake of the slaying of African-American teen Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost). Martin was killed at the age of 17 in 2012. He was fatally shot by 28-year-old Hispanic-American George Zimmerman. Although Wilkerson tells Selvan she’s on hiatus from the paper and short form writing, she agrees to listen to a recording of the Martin shooting. That precipitates a deep dive into the origin of oppression against peoples considered lowly. Wilkerson insists this isn’t racism, rather a reflection of the caste system, whether it involves African-Americans, Jews in Nazi Germany or Dalits in India. She maintains all these people have been marginalised.  Further, she links the subjugation of the Jews in Europe to the way Americans treated Blacks. Wilkerson sets out on a fact-finding mission, travelling to Germany and India in the process, as well as in her native America.

Agree with Wilkerson’s theory or not, DuVernay’s challenge was to translate this into an understandable and watchable movie. Although linear, Wilkerson’s journey is punctuated by frequent flashbacks to events that unfolded in her life and history.  Historical events include bold research in America’s Deep South, to a Nazi meeting determining the fate of the Jews and the emergence of a heroic Indian figure.

Although the acting is heartfelt, led admirably by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, the film took a long time to take off and then became repetitious and stretched. Once the road that Wilkerson was on was established, getting there became somewhat tortuous. Make no mistake, many of the incidents depicted are truly shocking. In fact, they eat into one’s psyche, but I couldn’t help thinking that I was at university being lectured. I say that because the point seemed to proving Wilkerson’s theory, even though it was questioned along the way. Jon Bernthal also features as Wilkerson’s husband Brett Hamilton.

No doubt I was moved by Origin, but I was still left frustrated by the circuitous route the film took.

Alex First

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