Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ is at its best when ‘Caste’ is left behind — Andscape
About 15 minutes into writer-director Ava DuVernay’s latest film, Origin, I almost walked out of the theater.
The movie opens with a detailed, terrifying and traumatizing reenactment of the killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. As the killing happens on-screen, recordings of the 911 calls from the night play in the background. You hear Zimmerman’s anger as he confronts the teen, and as the struggle between Martin and Zimmerman commences, a neighbor’s 911 call also plays in the background. We see Martin’s mouth agape as the fatal shooting is heard on the recording. And in the film. The scene indicates the tightrope storytellers have to walk in deciding how much trauma is too much and how it serves the story.
Based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Origin is a film that grapples with that choice while distilling a dense text into a cohesive and imperfect story full of scenes that will haunt me forever.
DuVernay’s first film in five years was, by her own admission, nearly impossible to get made. Studios balked at turning a nonfiction book of deep investigation and racial reckoning into a narrative feature. DuVernay’s will, star power and funding got the movie across the finish line. While I wouldn’t say studios were right to pass on the project, I didn’t see how Caste could become a film.
Part of the issue was I never fully bought into the premise of Wilkerson’s bestseller — the idea that caste structures based on class, and not race, determined the societal inequities and oppressive systems we live under. Scholars and critics much more intelligent than me have laid out the issues with the book and why caste systems and the book don’t adequately reckon with race and white supremacy. “Caste neither illuminates nor speaks to the origins, exigencies, or urgency of our time,” Charisse Burden-Stelly wrote in the Boston Review. “Its celebration in the mainstream media is cause for concern because it reflects the continued priority of elite preferences over the realities, needs, and struggles of ordinary people.”
To that end, the parts of the movie that try to highlight Wilkerson’s thesis are the moments that fall the shortest. The logistical hoops DuVernay has to go through to explain how caste illustrates inequality better than racism are often long explanatory monologues and excerpts from the book. They’re either presented in the film with extended takes of Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, delivering synopses of her thesis or over images of concentration camps, slave ships, and the Dalits, or untouchables, of India in hard-to-stomach servitude.
Which brings me back to the Trayvon Martin scene.
Origin’s opening reminded me of how difficult it was to watch DuVernay’s award-winning miniseries When They See Us about five teens who were accused of brutally raping and beating a woman in Central Park in 1989. The series was chilling, devastating and kept me up at night. The ending, in which the five men were eventually exonerated after spending years in prison, felt like a respite from the torture but not a total balm that made the atrocities the audience witnessed worth it.
As images of marginalized people in graphic, painful scenarios are drawn out across the screen in Origin, I found myself wondering whose minds would be changed by what they saw. Are white viewers supposed to witness the impact of white supremacy and change their minds? Are Black audiences served? Traumatizing audiences again with Martin’s death, which is revisited at the end of the movie, felt egregious and violent. And the movie doesn’t do enough work to justify those images.
However, Origin shines when it veers away from the arguments and explications of the source material and focuses on the human element of Wilkerson coping with the debilitating losses in her life. Origin’s heart isn’t in international sociopolitical issues. It’s in the moments where Ellis-Taylor can shine as an actor deep in her emotional bag. And thankfully, there are enough of those moments in the film to push the narrative forward. The gold nugget in the movie is Wilkerson’s struggle to pull herself together enough to write a book that guts her emotionally and forces her to revisit the worst moments in her life.
None of this works without Ellis-Taylor’s brilliance. She is captivating at every turn, going from loving to shaken, from flirty and playful to determined and vulnerable. It’s an award-worthy performance that hits the heart of what it takes to grieve multiple losses and find yourself through your artistry. About halfway through the film, Ellis-Taylor leans on a friend and says she just wants to scream. There, she encapsulates the emotional toll of grief and the despair that comes when you want to jump out of your chest. It’s the most resonant moment of the film — and a simple scene between two women that didn’t require grating, jarring images of bodily terrorism to make me feel something.
I’m glad I didn’t leave Origin when I wanted to. A beautiful story revolves around Wilkerson and the pieces we pick up to put together what we’ve lost in ourselves. The film gave me a new appreciation for what Wilkerson had to overcome to write the book she spent years dreaming about. While I admire what the movie attempted and accomplished, I also know that my refusal to be further traumatized by real-life terror will ensure I never watch it again.