Since breaking through into the mainstream with 2014’s Selma, Ava DuVernay has found most of her success through projects that portray or enlighten audiences about racial injustice in the United States. Her documentary 13th is an eye-opening look into how connected slavery and the prison industrial complex are in the US. She also directed the miniseries When They See Us, about the Central Park Five which also gathered critical acclaim. The only misstep in her feature film career recently has been her adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time in 2018, an audacious, but ultimately clumsy movie with way too much on its mind. With her latest film Origin, DuVernay finds herself trying to stretch back into the ambition she showed with Wrinkle while telling a real life story. The result, though ambitious, also struggles with focus.
Origin follows Isabel Wilkerson, played exquisitely by Aunjaune Ellis-Taylor, an author and journalist who tragically loses her husband and her mother within the span of a year. While coping with this immense loss, she goes on a journey around the world to research the connections between the caste systems in India and racism in the United States. The film is based on the book Wilkerson wrote on this subject, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and splices in what is, assumably, word-for-word passages over the historical events that are being described. These jumps in time essentially function as flashbacks for Wilkerson as the information gets unearthed, and we witness it on screen.
The film opens with a harrowing reenactment of the murder of Trayvon Martin, which is ultimately what sets the framing device of these events feeling like memories to Wilkerson. She is approached by her editor after a speaking event with the idea of writing about Martin. As she listens to the 911 call from the night of the murder, the scenes of the event are being replayed and she reacts to beats in real time. This is one of many moments in the film where we watch dramatized versions of real-life events. There’s a scene that takes place in Nazi occupied Berlin where hundreds of soldiers are burning books in public. This scene, very intentionally, is visually identical to the footage from the Charlottesville white supremacist march in August 2017. These moments serve as glimpses into history that we were not there to witness, but their proximity to what we see today makes it all the more prescient.
The scenes with Isabel’s family are the ones that really form the cohesive web around these disparate tragedies. Her mother, played by Emily Yancy, says that Martin shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood in the first place, which links to the idea that people, regardless of intention, have places, jobs, things, etc., that they are not allowed access to based on things they cannot control. In a family cookout scene, Isabel gives her cousin Marion, played by Niecy Nash-Betts, a very academic version of her thesis on caste not being the same as racism. Upon being met with dumbfoundedness, the conversation opens up an ability to explain the idea without the pretension of Ivy League verbiage.
While the subject matter itself is quite compelling, these scenes amount to mostly visual context for the book’s thesis. When a film follows investigative journalists breaking open a story, part of the excitement is that this is brand new information that is coming to light. Origin uses the same visual language as a film like Spotlight or All The President’s Men, but with the style of a PBS documentary. It’s quite baffling watching exquisitely shot reenactments of events just to cut back to two-camera interview coverage. The second hour of this film mostly consisted of Isabel walking around museums and doing research in libraries, which can be really fascinating when information is being uncovered, but that’s not the kind of research she is doing. When you’re cinematically watching someone gather references for a book, the question “should this have been a documentary?” comes to mind. It’s a testament to the performers that they are able to sell these interview moments.
Outside of the dull docudrama style, Aunjaune Ellis-Taylor is remarkable. It’s always fascinating to watch an actor react to something that they are not witnessing firsthand and she brings an authenticity to that grief that is desperately needed in a film like this. Jon Bernthal, who plays her late husband, is honestly a charm machine. He has chemistry with anyone and anything he lays eyes on, which makes his flashback scenes have a layer of woe to them that is felt through the screen. DuVernay layers in these surrealist moments of Wilkerson saying goodbye to her husband and mother while they lay on piles of fallen leaves. This gorgeous portrayal of wrestling with grief is something these actors hit out of the park, though the ambition would have been welcome throughout the film.
3 out of 5 stars
Even with heartbreaking performances and powerful themes, Origin cannot quite shake the documentary stench. Although a bit unfocused, DuVernay does what she does best – weave a complicated narrative into a prescient tale worth watching.