Ava DuVernay made history in Venice by being the first female African American director to participate in the festival competition. It’s possible that the festival jury will be swayed enough by the power of Origin’s story to award her the Golden Lion, but there are better films than this in competition.
DuVernay’s film is based on the bestselling 2020 book by Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. The book’s argument is that caste, rather than race, is at the root of society and is the cause of its malaise. The book connects the slavery and subjugation of Black people in the US with the caste system of India and the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jewish population. Origin looks at the story behind the book and at Wilkerson’s personal journey that leads her to write it.
But the film doesn’t open with the author; it opens with a young Black man going to the store. As we watch him walk out into the night, he fades into the blackness. With that simple disappearing act, DuVernay lets the audience know that something will befall him. It later transpires that the disappearing boy was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch vigilante.
The action then shifts from the Floridian night to a domestic scene: Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis) and her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) are moving her mother into sheltered housing. Wilkerson is already a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, sought after at conferences and events throughout the country. Brett is at her side, championing her and encouraging her. When she is asked by a friend and ex-colleague to write an article about Trayvon Martin, she declines, but Brett urges her to work. And when she – and we – listen to the police audio recording of the vigilante and then of the concerned neighbour, it is a horrifying and shocking moment.
When Wilkerson embarks on her research, basing it on the premise that caste is the subject rather than race, so begins a steep learning curve for the author. Wilkerson repeats at least four times what caste means and what her book is about. It all feels a bit teachy and pedantic, like we’re so dumb we have to receive the information slowly and repeatedly before we get it.
Wilkerson acts like nobody has ever joined the dots between US policy on segregation, Nazism and the Indian caste system, but we hear a recording of Martin Luther King back in 1959 stating that on his visit to India he was welcomed as a fellow untouchable. Wilkerson travels to India to learn more about the caste system, but her research could easily have been done in a library and on Skype. But there she is, pen and pad at the ready, busily taking notes as a Dalit (as those of the untouchable caste are called) professor espouses his own views. She goes to Berlin, where she learns that the Nazis’ inspiration for their own race laws was the Jim Crow laws of the American south.
DuVernay uses flashbacks to historical events to bring Wilkerson’s research to life: she follows the story of August Landmesser – the man who is thought to have refused to salute Hitler – and his Jewish girlfriend Irma Eckler; she depicts Allison Davis, a Black anthropologist and professor, who with his wife and their white colleagues Burleigh and Mary Gardner, would risk their lives to study the caste system in the American south of the 1940s; and then there is the reenactment of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
The performances are decent, although actors such as Vera Farmiga are given close to nothing to do, while others such as Wilkerson’s cousin Marion (Niecy Nash) are ciphers into which Wilkerson regurgitates her theories. Bernthal and Ellis make a fine couple, while the latter is particularly strong when her character is grieving. Nick Offerman has a nice cameo as a hard MAGA-loving plumber softened by Wilkerson’s humanity.
Most of the action occurs with Kris Bowers’ infuriating score not so much in the background as incessantly intruding on the action, the heavy emphasis on violins and piano trying to pull at the viewer’s heartstrings. When DuVernay moves away from her screenplay and towards Wilkerson’s book, the language flows and the film becomes way more interesting.
Perhaps it would be more edifying and more compelling to read Wilkerson’s work than to watch DuVernay’s rendition of it. The director’s work on When They See Us was phenomenal and packs a far more powerful punch than this disappointing film about such a fascinating and important subject.