Origin Movie Review

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A young Black man (Myles Frost) leaves a convenience store just after making a purchase. He puts the hood on his sweatshirt up, and continues on his way, all the while talking to someone on the phone. He suddenly realizes that a truck has been following him as he walks, looping around the block to pass him several times. It takes a moment, but we realize what we are seeing is the moment just before the murder of Trayvon Martin, an incident that set off rallies and protests across the United States. And it’s a moment that becomes pivotal to Pulitzer Award-winning writer and journalist Isabel Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in the film). She’s asked to write an article about the case in light of the discovery of audio tapes shedding new light on the events of that evening. Wilkerson eventually turns down the request because, for her, it raises more questions than answers, and as she says, she doesn’t just ask questions.

But it’s these persistent questions and, in particular, her concern that these days, everything is racist, that we call everything racist, and her pondering about what that even means, that set her on a path of research and discovery. For Wilkerson, “Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient.” Wilkerson’s quest to understand racism, especially through the lens of caste, takes her from her home in the U.S. to Berlin, and then later to India, where she explores the life and work of Dalit politician and professor Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and his legacy as a socio-political reformer in India. The film, as noted in its opening, is a dramatization of Wilkerson’s life and her writing process. These two strands travel through the film as Wilkerson researches and explores the many questions she has, while at the same time navigating personal loss and grief when following the deaths of her husband, then her mother, and later on, a beloved cousin. Out of unfathomable loss, Wilkerson plunges herself into the work that would become her acclaimed non-fiction book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

In Origin, director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time) manages to take a non-fiction work of great depth and complexity and allow viewers to have some insight into the lives of people who suffer at the hands of systemic racism. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as Wilkerson, shows us a woman both trying to escape from the profound grief she is feeling, but also confronting systems and issues in order to create a greater understanding of the issues surrounding racism and caste. In Wilkerson’s words: “You don’t escape trauma by ignoring it. You escape trauma by confronting it.” She spends much of the film following the steps of those who spent their careers and their lives in pursuit of answers. She ponders how Jim Crow laws/segregation in the US connect to the Holocaust, how the stories of Miss Hale and Al Bright, of Trayvon Martin, Rohith Vemula, of B.R. Ambedkar’s visit to Harlem and Martin Luther King’s visit to India, how they all connect, eventually, in what will become her Pillars of Caste.

The latter part of the film, where Wilkerson starts outlining what will become the Pillars of her book, are the most difficult to watch, as we see the victims of this system, from Nazi Germany, to the southern U.S., to India. They are described as nameless, faceless scapegoats, but the film gives them faces and names, gives them humanity, challenging us to see them even when we want to look away because the indignities and injustices they face are just so brutal. We must face what we want to deny, and this is the film’s strength and power. This is one of the most painful, and yet one of the most important films I’ve ever seen, and it’s a film that must be seen, must be understood. We must feel this pain, we must feel this sorrow, because this is the way that we restore the humanity of people who have been dehumanized by these brutal ideas that force people into boxes and strip them of everything that makes them human.

Origin is so dense, filled with complex ideas and information, and with subjects so heavy that they require, at times, an attentive and engaged viewer. But the film is also poetic and beautiful. After the death of first her husband, Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal), and then her mother (Emily Yancy), Wilkerson imagines herself lying on the ground next to them, everything covered with brown autumn leaves, and while she is left uncovered, they disappear as the leaves swirl down to blanket them entirely. It’s such a beautiful way to think about loss and grief, with Wilkerson unable to move, to do anything except beg them to stay, even when she knows they are already gone.

The editing is also, at times, inspired: Isabel heading into the airport to check in for a flight, and as she goes further along, the crowds become more dense, and the film seamlessly slips into the past, into Germany in the 1930s, where we hear the story of shipyard worker August Landmesser and his refusal to give a heil salute. Or in a scene earlier in the film, where Isabel’s mother looks out a window and sees clouds, and imagines a group of boys splashing in a swimming pool, expands on it, saying it’s a little league team celebrating. We’ll remember this image later in the film when we hear the story of Al Bright, much more impactful now that we’ve travelled this journey with Isabel to understand the dark side to her mother’s more sunny image. Certain parts of Isabel’s life are shown, and then we see a different or more nuanced side to the story as Isabel travels and learns, and her personal stories become intertwined with the stories she hears as she works on her book. Mirrors and echoes are found throughout the film, giving it depth, and cleverly illuminating what Isabel feels, or what she does, or what she learns and thinks as she does her research.

The film makes Isabel Wilkerson’s work even more present and even more important in a world where imagery from the past has been dragged into the present in order to fuel the movements of hatred and bigotry that seem to be increasingly present in our world. As a woman who Isabel pitches the idea to says, if you can make people see the connective tissue, between this contemporary hate, these hateful symbols, between Trayvon Martin, between Heather Heyer (struck down at a BLM protest), between the work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in India, if you can show people how all of it is linked, then that would be an incredible book. And she’s right: Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents is a dense, researched, thoughtful and challenging book. DuVernay takes it and makes us connect with these ideas by rooting them in the lives of people affected by what Wilkerson calls the Eight Pillars of Caste that connect these people. Scholarly subjects like divine will, heritability, endogamy, purity and pollution, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror and cruelty, inherent inferiority, and superiority – these ideas are made relatable through the stories of the people told as Wilkerson researches, and give us an emotional connection to make us understand these people, understand the consequences of these Pillars of Caste on the lives of real people. Origin invites us to sit with these ideas, to acknowledge these connections, and to reimagine our world in a way that honours the beauty and humanity of every human life.

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