Origin review | Ava DuVernay’s film is ambitious, flawed and thrilling

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Ava DuVernay’s latest film mixes fact with fiction to tell the story of writer and journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Here’s our Origin review. 

Ava DuVernay’s ambitious Origin, her first film since 2018’s A Wrinkle In Time, starts off almost like a horror film. DuVernay begins her film with a devastating recreation of the night Trayvon Martin lost his life, playing the 911 recordings of the incident in the background. 

Crucially, we never see the murder itself, because DuVernay isn’t interested in traumatising her audience any further. Instead, Origin is a remarkable work of empathy. 

It’s a difficult film to describe. It’s based on the non-fiction book Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. However, Origin isn’t a biopic of Wilkerson nor is it a documentary about her work or her central thesis in Caste. It’s a little bit of both; DuVernay attaches herself and us to Wilkerson as she forms her thesis and attempts to explore how Wilkerson’s own grief shaped her journey to write the book. 

origin aunjanue ellis-taylor
Credit: Black Bear

The film follows Wilkerson as she faces an insurmountable amount of grief and loss and is then asked to write about the Trayvon Martin murder by her editor Amari (Blair Underwood). Wilkerson objects at first, asking Amari to get another writer on the case. “They don’t have Pulitzer Prizes,” Amari responds.

Wilkerson’s argument with Caste was that racism is so much more complex than we understand it to be. Wilkerson tied the horrors of Nazi Germany to Jim Crow South and the caste system in India, arguing that they all follow the same logic of dehumanisation and a certain hierarchy. 

It’s a dense and heavy topic to grapple with, but somehow DuVernay weaves everything together seamlessly. Origin is a film about journalism and about writing, and on paper, it rarely seems exciting as Wilkerson travels to libraries around the world to peruse books, but DuVernay breathes life into it. 

At times, Origin can be a little overstuffed with ideas, and DuVernay often struggles to nail down a specific tone or pace. These are flaws, for sure, but there’s a palpable anger and a frustration to DuVernay’s filmmaking, which makes Origin exciting and radical. DuVernay also experiments with genre here by adding in recreations of real life events.

DuVernay also helmed the impressive documentary 13th in 2016, which explored the incarceration of Black men in the United States. At times, Origin feels like it could – and maybe should – have been a documentary. While DuVernay finds visual ways of showing Wilkerson’s complex ideas, the director is less successful in weaving Wilkerson’s personal life into the mix. 

We learn very little about Wilkerson’s husband Brett (Jon Bernthal, always excellent) and a scene with a MAGA-hat wearing Nick Offerman as a plumber feels heavy handed. Wilkerson also grapples with having to move her mother into a care home, but there’s no clear link between Wilkerson’s personal struggles and her writing of the book, which can prove frustrating.

Yet, it’s almost impossible not to be thoroughly moved by Origin. Much of this is thanks to Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s nuanced, powerful performance. She has the difficult job of being the connective tissue in a film that jumps between different time periods to show the caste system in action, but Ellis-Taylor keeps the film grounded and accessible. Niecy Nash also provides some much-needed levity as cousin Marion in a film that is constantly in danger of buckling under its own weight. 

It’s not a perfect film, but its ambition and willingness to challenge our ideas of not just racism, but of genre should be appreciated and celebrated. With Origin, DuVernay once again proves that she is a masterful director, with fresh ideas and a fearlessness that modern Hollywood could really do with more. Even in the film’s weaker moments, Origin is a work of thrilling originality.

Origin is in UK cinemas 8th March. 

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