Racism’s roots: ‘Origin’ is an excellent drama full of important history lessons

After some bumps in the road—including Netflix dropping the project and producer/director/co-writer Ana DuVernay needing to find alternate funding sources—Origin has finally made it to theaters.

It’s an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and the film takes the interesting narrative route of being a biopic, depicting the process Wilkerson went through in putting her thesis together. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays the author as she travels the world, formulates her opinions and endures numerous personal tragedies.

Joining Ellis-Taylor are Jon Bernthal as Brett, Isabel’s husband; Niecy Nash-Betts as her cousin, Marion; and Emily Yancy as Ruby, her mother. The entire cast is outstanding, successfully navigating the sprawling scope of DuVernay’s solid script and directing. Man, Nash-Betts is suddenly establishing herself as a powerful dramatic actress.

Wilkerson’s theories derive from her belief that racism in America is largely due to the caste system—in other words, bigotry isn’t solely dependent upon race. Her research includes aspects such as an early meeting of the Nazi party, where the Holocaust was being planned, and America’s Jim Crow South was being suggested as a model.

Wilkerson’s research is kicked off by the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida by George Zimmerman, which is vividly depicted in the film. Nazi Germany, the “untouchables” caste system in India, and American slavery all contribute to her theory, which begins to make a lot of sense as the film plays out. In one fast but horrifying scene, a man is hung as a party of people casually pose for a group picture in front of his dangling corpse.

There are also sequences in which Wilkerson talks to the departed, including a young African-American boy who, decades before, wasn’t allowed to swim in a pool with his teammates after a championship victory. The moment when the young man is humiliated during the pool party is also depicted, and it’s devastating to watch.

There are times when it looks like the film’s budget doesn’t quite match up to DuVernay’s ambitions. The movie never looks bad, but it does have a few moments when it’s obvious DuVernay had to cut a corner or two, especially in some of the historical, period-piece flashbacks. At 141 minutes, with sequences shot in India, and scenes set in Nazi Germany and the old South, the film actually looks pretty good, all things considered.

The film reminds a bit of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life given its scope and vast examination of human history. But Origin also works as a very good drama. The traumas Wilkerson endures as she loses many family members are shown in touching, heartbreaking ways, and all the performances resonate.

Given the relatively small budget, it’s no surprise that many of you probably didn’t hear about this film until reading this review. Neon, which gets a lot of credit for picking up the movie to distribute, probably could not afford to really market the movie, which will need to get by mostly on word of mouth and positive press. (I do believe more marketing would’ve garnered some awards nominations for DuVernay and her cast.)

It’s good that Origin exists, and people will learn some things from it. (It’s the sort of movie that should be shown in high school history classes.) DuVernay, who also made the excellent Selma, is proving to be one of our more important historical filmmakers. 

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