Ava DuVernay is an accomplished dramatic director who knows how to craft a human story around a crusading idea without letting one overwhelm the other. She proved that with 2014’s Selma, her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic concentrating on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches. But DuVernay is also a documentarian: Her fiery Netflix film 13th, about the prison-industrial complex, proved she doesn’t need the comforting accoutrements of story and character to help her make a powerful point.
These two sides of the director tussle for control of Origin, an ambitious adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The movie, which chronicles the personal tragedies of Wilkerson’s life as she conceives and researches the book, is an awkward hybrid of these two approaches, neither of which fully succeeds. It’s a drama that wants to be a documentary, and it’s at its best when it’s just reeling off Wilkerson’s fascinating ideas at full flow.
The movie starts with Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, drifting in a personal limbo after publishing her first book. She’s happily married, and her husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), is a practical rock and a smart sounding board for her ideas. But she’s struggling with the decision to move her mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy), into a nursing home, and she’s avoiding taking up a new project. Keen to get her writing again, her editor suggests she look into the killing of Trayvon Martin. The case stirs something in Wilkerson: a counterintuitive, almost ornery urge to look past pure racism as an explanation.
The book that eventually emerges is Caste, which seeks to recontextualize American racism and the Black American experience as aspects of a caste system — a millennia-old phenomenon of human society that can, and often does, operate entirely independently of race. Wilkerson finds links and commonalities between slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S., India’s caste system and the subjugation of the Dalit people (previously known as “untouchables”), and the dehumanization of Jews in Nazi Germany that ended in the Holocaust. Wilkerson’s argument is that racism is perhaps a byproduct, or manifestation, of a greater, more universal human evil: the stratification of society into discrete castes of people considered inferior or superior, subhuman or superhuman, for no rational reason.
This is really interesting, thought-provoking stuff, and it’s no small wonder that DuVernay (who wrote Origin’s screenplay) is so eager to get these ideas across. She does: When it comes to articulating the core concepts of Wilkerson’s book, Origin is clear and persuasive, which is perhaps the only measure of success that should matter for a movie like this. But while the film serves the book well, it serves its own dramatic story poorly, and fails as a movie — ironically because DuVernay is so anxious to find an accessible, relatable frame for these ideas.
So the audience spends the majority of Origin watching Ellis-Taylor travel, debate, and interview, nodding sagely as she makes notes or frowning in sympathy and sorrow. DuVernay finds a dramatic motor in Wilkerson’s sad personal story — she experienced multiple, devastating losses while researching Caste — but she never successfully finds a link between these events and the real content of the movie, which is Wilkerson’s thesis. (Origin spends a puzzling amount of time on Wilkerson deciding what to do with her mother’s house — puzzling, that is, until this subplot delivers a painfully labored metaphor in the movie’s closing scenes.) With all due respect to both Wilkerson and Ellis-Taylor, who gives a dignified performance, the story of “sad writer lady grieves, has thoughts, writes good book” might be inspirational, but it doesn’t seem relevant to the ideas she’s presenting.
Occasionally, though, the scenes of Wilkerson’s life do crackle with energy, thanks to some nifty casting. Nick Offerman plays a recalcitrant plumber in a MAGA hat, come to inspect the mother’s waterlogged basement. Connie Nielsen plays a Berlin intellectual who refuses to countenance any equivalence between slavery and the Holocaust, in the film’s most prickly scene. Audra McDonald is wonderful as Miss Hale, a friend of Wilkerson’s who explains the complex social dynamics of the name “Miss” in a potent anecdote.
But Origin invariably stirs more interest when it dives into the past to reconstruct some of the historical material Wilkerson uses in her argument. The story of four young anthropologists — two married couples, one white, one Black — secretly embedding themselves on either side of the racial divide in 1930s Mississippi to research a groundbreaking book could be a movie in itself. And there’s an astonishing, damning scene taken from a transcript of a Nazi party meeting in the early 1930s, in which the Nazis study America’s Jim Crow laws as a blueprint for the separation and dehumanization of the Jewish people.
These stories, and the context Wilkerson places them in, are powerful. The almost comical footage of Ellis-Taylor organizing piles of books, writing on a whiteboard, and tapping on a laptop while she ties her case together in voice-over adds nothing but cringe value. It’s easy to imagine a documentary version of Origin that’s more like 13th, with the historical reconstructions stitched together by archive footage, talking-head interviews, and biographical information about Wilkerson. It might have been just as compelling, and much more satisfying and coherent. But the takeaway is just the same, and one I intend to act on myself: Go buy a copy of Caste and read it.
Origin is now in theaters. Check the movie’s website for local listings.