A fascinating exposé of global bigotry

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The Selma director is back with a drama centring on writer Isabel Wilkerson and her research into systemic injustice. It’s fiercely focused and full of heart, writes Steph Green.


In Ava DuVernay’s startlingly scholarly drama about a black academic and her journey in writing a book about “caste” – the hierarchies created within human societies – our protagonist Isabel Wilkerson posits that it is a better term than “racism” to explain the universal origins of hate. That’s because she deems the subjugation and extermination of all manners of groups – from the Jews of Europe to the Dalit peoples in India – to be interconnected.

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Possessing both some of the Hollywood sheen of Selma (2014) and the enlightening, instructive tone of her documentary 13th (2016), Origin compellingly pursues a theory about the structural suppression of mass groups through the story of one remarkable individual.

“Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient.” This is the viewpoint of Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), a respected writer living with her white husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), who we meet as she is struggling to care for her elderly mother and come up with ideas for her next project. It is the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, an event which DuVernay recreates with queasy attention to detail, which forms the seeds of Isabel’s next work, where she attempts to make sense of this injustice. Reticent to classify the act as a simple act of racism, as some have perceived it, she instead sees it as a wider by-product of othering that shares similarities with several types of discrimination around the world.

Origin is fascinating: not a mere information dump or distanced thesis, but a celebration of academia, in which education and curiosity are considered to be the path towards compassion, solidarity and empathy (the fact that viewership for DuVernay’s 13th, which explores the intersection between race and mass incarceration, surged by 4,665% in the weeks following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, says as much).

And, indeed, throughout Origin, the viewer learns a lot of facts, stories and anecdotes about individuals who paved the way in caste studies; while Wilkerson’s 2020 book upon which Origin is based was pioneering in its application of the term “caste” to the US, the film touches upon the life and work of Allison and Elizabeth Davis, a black couple whose 1941 investigative book Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class was a crucial forebear. But it is in the comparisons between quotidian grief and systemic bigotry, weaving Isabel’s personal experience with the politics of her job and the history she must reckon with, in which Origin is the most impressive.

Capturing the spirit of real-life academic graft, and the importance of humility and curiosity in learning about such complex matters, Isabel’s quest to find answers begins slowly, with a variety of research trips. We join her in Germany, where her attempts to compare the Holocaust with American slavery are initially dismissed as woolly. Determined to further her research and hone her point of view, she travels to India while continuing to interview ordinary people and academics alike, gathering stories of subjugation and identifying patterns of abuse. The Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – in which Neo-Nazis and other white nationalists  sought to promote their ideology – is implicitly compared to Nazi book burning demonstrations that took place in Berlin’s Bebelplatz in 1933.

The modern-day degradation of Dalits in India, with people forced to clean sewage and waste with their bare hands in exchange for leftover food, is placed alongside the forced servility of black peoples during the era of Jim Crow to draw comparisons between how different caste systems perpetuate dehumanisation. Through these myriad historical learnings, both Isabel – and DuVernay – propose that by codifying and in some cases legalising myths of superiority and inferiority between different groups, and removing individualising factors from groups in order to render them one mass, the justification of caste has sinisterly pervaded through time. 


Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga

Run time: 2hr 15mins

But where Origin stands out is in its mix of theory and emotion. Isabel’s relationship with her husband Brett is an aspect of our protagonist’s romantic life but also her political one. When he suddenly passes away, Isabel is helped to process what has happened by her study of endogamy – the custom of marrying only within the limits of one’s own group. Her research allows her to both mourn and celebrate him as someone, by contrast, who defied the US caste system through love and understanding. It is a simple yet powerful demonstration of how educating oneself historically and sociologically can help nourish the soul and clarify personal struggles.

The film is shot with a richly coloured, textured and timeless-looking film grain, only adding to its feeling of tangible literary importance. Where it occasionally falters is with notes of over-dramatisation that ring hollow, detracting from the otherwise refined storytelling. Scenes where Isabel is lying despairingly on a bed of autumn leaves, or is filmed interacting with figures of the past through abstract sequences – “you are going to be fine”, she tells one young black boy barred from entering a whites-only pool – feel somewhat jarring when placed alongside real recreations of horrifying events, such as black slaves being transported from the hull of ships from Africa to the US, or the separation of mothers and children at concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“It happened, therefore it can happen again” – so goes the quote by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who is invoked within the film at a museum Isabel visits in Germany. If the Nazis were inspired by American methods of enslavement, as we learn in one scene, then future atrocities could be put in motion in the spirit of discrimination that is being perpetrated around the world today. Exploring this terrible framework, DuVernay’s film unfolds with unpreaching clarity and fierce focus, full of heart and vibrant intent.


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