Origin, another masterwork from Ava DuVernay

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

Origin, from writer and director Ava DuVernay, is another masterwork from one of America’s greatest directors. The movie is an adaptation of the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. The book itself is a scholarly work with copious footnotes and appendices. Ava DuVernay made the movie about Isabel Wilkerson’s journey in writing the book. It’s personalized into a drama while still exploring the book’s thesis.

Origin begins with Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), a Pulitzer Prize winning author, wanting to take some time off from writing to be with her ailing mother (Emily Yancy). She’s happily married to Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal), who helps with her mother.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal in Origin

Isabel and Brett attend a party. Magazine editor Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood) urges Isabel to write about the recent Trayvon Martin murder for his magazine. Kate (Vera Farmiga), her book editor, wants her to start something new. She puts them both off.

On the way home from the party, Isabel and Brett argue about where Isabel’s mother should be living. Later Isabel comes out of the bathroom after getting ready for bed and finds Brett on the floor, dead.

Just a few months later her mother dies as well. She’s drowning in grief and not able to write. She’s reading books about the deep south, about the Holocaust, about India’s caste system.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

Isabel talks to her cousin Marion Wilkerson (Niecy Nash-Betts) about some of the ideas percolating in her head from her reading. She lays out a theory for Marion that racism in America isn’t about race so much as caste, a hierarchy of class. When Marion demands a clearer explanation in “plain English,” Isabel explains how caste works in India where everyone is Indian. She talks about how the Jews and Germans were both white in the Holocaust. Marion urges her to write about her ideas in that plain a style for her next book.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

Origin shows the writer’s journey through research and study, through travel to Germany and India. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is very good at the sitting and thinking parts of the film, but it’s also filled with stories from her studies and travels that add action and interest to the film.

In Germany we see the Nazi book burnings, we eavesdrop on a meeting of Nazi lawyers where they decide to model their restrictions on the Jewish population after the Jim Crow laws in America.

In India, with the help of Suraj Yengde, Ph.D., a Dalit man who plays himself in the film, she learns about the caste system.

At home she talks with many people and hears their stories. One is her friend Miss Hale (Audra McDonald). Her legal first name is ‘Miss.’ Isabel thought naming her that was an act that blew a hole in the hierarchy and forced people to address her with respect. There is a story about a championship Little League baseball team that goes to a pool to celebrate their win. The one Black child on the team is not allowed in the water.

Examples and stories like these take the film out of the writer’s brain and show concrete events that illustrate the thesis she was developing in her book. The book looks at 8 “pillars” of caste that create the foundation of hierarchy. Examples include the control of marriage, the idea of inherent superiority vs. inherent inferiority, control with cruelty, dehumanization, and others.

The key points were delivered in a voice over by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor at the end. The book came out in 2020 around the time of George Floyd’s murder and spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It is definitely worth reading. This film is definitely worth watching.

The message could hardly be more relevant in 2024 when a rabid group of rich white Christian nationalists are trying to use the rules of caste to do away with democracy and install themselves as rulers with absolute power.

The film was in theaters. You can rent it now on Prime Video. It will be available as part of a subscription before long, I’m sure. I urge you to add it to your watchlist.

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