Ava DuVernay Probes the True ​'Origin' of Racism

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Rachel HoPublished Jan 19, 2024

From the murder of George Floyd to the anti-Asian fearmongering during the pandemic, a social reckoning around racism was jumpstarted in 2020. In a rather timely fashion, in August 2020 author Isabel Wilkerson published Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a non-fiction book that looks at racism within the context of a caste system.

Wilkerson's book contends that racism, in the United States specifically, is not actually about race. Rather, such discrimination is the consequence of a socioeconomic hierarchy, similar to that of the caste systems of India. Wilkerson considers the aggressive prejudices and resulting segregation within a country like India, where the vast majority of the population are of the same race, and within Nazi Germany, where Germans and Jewish people are both ostensibly white, and explores why the outcome is still similar to that of the treatment of African-Americans. Her thesis is based upon eight pillars of caste, ranging from divine will to endogamy to terror and cruelty. (As an aside — Caste is a fascinating read and highly recommended.)

Taking a book that doesn't appear to have clear movie adaptation potential, Ava DuVernay makes Wilkerson her film's main character. Played by a rousing and eloquent Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Origin takes us on the writer's journey, from the inception and development of her proposition to the research that takes her around the world. Ellis-Taylor grants Wilkerson the necessary intelligence and curiosity, as well as restraint and heartache when faced with a tragic loss that helps contextualize the film and the author's life. 

DuVernay does a commendable job bringing a non-fiction book like Caste to cinematic life. Through conversations between Wilkerson and those closest to her, as well as her research subjects, we come to understand the eight pillars the author builds her premise upon (there's also a whiteboard that appears every so often as a visual reminder). And although the main focus is Wilkerson's theory, her grapple with grief greatly informs much of the film's narrative as well. 

What Origin isn't, however, is subtle. 

Using imagery intended to shock and disturb — such as American slavery, Nazi concentration camps and the working conditions of Dalits — DuVernay shows that she's unafraid to use everything in her toolbox to provoke her audience to feel a very particular emotion. Origin beats us over the head with Wilkerson's opinions, playing the most saccharine notes that are emphatically and intentionally manipulative, as if DuVernay didn't want to take a chance that the point would be missed. 

Arguably, this manner of filmmaking is unbecoming for an established and celebrated director like DuVernay — but, somehow, within the confines of Wilkerson's life and ideas, these heavy-handed choices never actually fail the author, her book or the film. 

Undoubtedly, Origin will make audiences gasp, squirm and cry thanks to the broad nature of the film's visuals, but hopefully it will also make audiences of all races, ethnicities and religions reconsider our own prejudices, as well as the systematic discrimination built within our society.
(Elevation Pictures)

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