THE STORY – “Origin” chronicles the remarkable life and work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson as she investigates the genesis of injustice and uncovers a hidden truth that affects us all.
THE CAST – Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman & Blair Underwood
THE TEAM – Ava DuVernay (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 135 Minutes
To witness injustice in the world is always a horrific endeavor. It is displayed in current events almost daily and touches many individuals in direct ways. It’s an affair in which the consequences are unrelenting. However, the roots of such disturbing actions remain a complicated web of centuries-long motivations. To untangle these threads is necessary, for without understanding how such conflict came to be, there is little hope for obtaining the solutions required to overcome such situations. This is the central thesis of “Origin.” It aims to plunge deep into what creates harmful divisions in society and display how widespread this issue has become. It is a powerful, if a tad laborious, examination that maintains a haunting quality.
At the center of this piece is Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), a real Pulitzer Prize-winning author with a keen interest in stories of social justice. She is approached shortly after the killing of Trayvon Martin to write about this topic, but she initially refuses. However, after the sudden death of her husband (Jon Bernthal) and the passing of her mother months later, Isabel is determined to find meaning in work that allows her to deal with the overwhelming grief. She takes on the task of not only analyzing the subject of racism but also digging deep to uncover why such systems of oppression have a global reach among a diverse set of backgrounds. Her findings lead to the theme of castes, levels within communities that actively select the superiority of one sect over another. The further she goes into this topic, the more the raw emotions of her own psyche are brought to the surface.
This film is a welcomed cinematic return for director Ava DuVernay. From the film’s opening frames, one is greeted with a nicely textured world that establishes an emotional connection to this environment with stunning imagery and composition. The encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman is frighteningly recreated without any exploitation, and that tone is persistent throughout. The rich cinematography exceptionally highlights both the modern and period settings, crafting a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait. One becomes invested in the investigative work that pulls back the layers of a complex matter, as well as the overwhelming tragedy that touches Isabel’s life. The intimacy DuVernay showcases is powerful, and the emotional impact is profound.
The narrative DuVernay crafts is also one that is quite engaging with its intellectual principles. The notion of broadening the scope of where the seeds of racism were planted to a more nuanced apparatus of the caste system is inherently fascinating. This demonstrates how different aspects of the world have been affected. In truth, though, this analysis can get meandering at a certain point. Long stretches indulge in voice-over narration, more than likely inspired by portions from the actual book being completed in the film. While the passages contain intriguing information, their abundance can start to feel tedious. It begins to become like a stale lecture being given, and sometimes, the readings come across as somewhat didactic. The film does its best to do both the showing and the telling, as these sections are always accompanied by some kind of reenactment to keep up the visual momentum. However, particularly once the film arrives in India, the pacing starts to feel effortful. It recovers with a poignant finale, but the storytelling is a bit rocky to get to that point.
Ellis-Taylor would undoubtedly be described as the film’s lead, but the nature of the story oddly doesn’t center her much. One could say the main character is the book’s theme, and her character is merely a vessel to deliver such a sermon. Still, the performance is captivating, especially in how she renders the unbelievable sadness that engulfs her and the tenacity to push through with this important work. The rest of the ensemble is filled to the brim with talented performers, though for many of them, the size of the role isn’t significant, save for Niecy Nash-Betts as Isabel’s supportive cousin. She brings a humorous and compelling screen presence that is appreciated. Audra McDonald only appears in a single scene but dispenses a weighty, devastating personal monologue. Many in the cast fit this bill, including Bernthal, who is capable in a role that also doesn’t demand too much from him. One has the sense the actors are here to serve this essential material.
It could have been very easy for “Origin” to slip into a stiff commentary on an imperative circumstance. In truth, it sometimes does succumb to this pitfall and becomes less enthralling because of it. At the same time, DuVernay’s skills as a storyteller greatly compensate for these deficiencies. Her hand is deeply attuned to the meaningful discussion at the root of this story, and she brings a grace and intensity that is vibrantly presented. The film does seek to provide answers to a difficult question. It’s, unfortunately, a task that’s nearly impossible to define all the parameters. However, observing this journey is an incredibly haunting experience. The exploration of what drives the levers of hate is still quite gripping.