Ava DuVernay’s new feature film, adapted from the Isabel Wilkerson book “Caste,” turns the journalist into a character who examines oppression.
Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” is as audacious as it is ambitious. At its core, it concerns an intellectual argument about history and hierarchies of power, but it’s also about the fraught process of making this argument. It’s a daunting conceit that DuVernay has shaped into an eventful narrative that is, by turns, specific and far-ranging, diagnostic and aspirational. It is a great big swing about taking a great big swing, and while the film is more persuasive as a drama than the argument it relays, few American movies this year reach so high so boldly.
The inspiration for “Origin,” which DuVernay both wrote and directed, is Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed, best-selling 2020 book “Caste.” In it, Wilkerson argues that to fully understand the United States and its divisive history, you need to look past race and grasp the role played by caste, which she sees as an artificial and static structural “ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.” Caste, she writes, separates people — including into racially ranked groups — and keeps them divided. These separations, as the subtitle puts it, are “The Origins of Our Discontents.”
For the film, DuVernay has turned Wilkerson into a dramatic, at times melodramatic character of the same name — a moving Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor — who develops her thesis while traversing history and continents on a journey from inspiration to publication. The movie also includes segments of varying effectiveness that dramatize Wilkerson’s understanding of specific caste systems: One is set in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, another in Depression-era Mississippi and a third in India over different time periods. This last interlude focuses on Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania), who helped draft India’s Constitution and championed the rights of Dalits, people once deemed “untouchables.”
Isabel’s intellectual quest is bold, sweeping and determinedly personal — a handful of close relatives have decisive roles — and DuVernay’s version of that venture is equally expansive. She gives it tension, tears, visual poetry, shocks of tragedy, moments of grace and many interlocking parts. “Origin” opens in 2012 with a re-enactment of the last night in the life of Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost), the unarmed 17-year-old who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. The killing becomes the catalyst for her thesis about caste because, the more she considers it, the more she believes that racism alone can’t explain it. Racism, she says at one point, has become “the default” explanation.
Isabel’s process unfolds rapidly and is framed by her resistance to the default. Her resistance surfaces in a discussion that she has with her husband, Brett (a sympathetic Jon Bernthal), and mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy), as they watch President Obama address Martin’s death on TV. It also informs Isabel’s talks with an acquaintance (Blair Underwood), who early on urges her to write about the case, pushing her to listen to the 911 calls that were made the night Martin was killed. (Wilkerson is a former bureau chief for The New York Times; her first book is “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”)
Isabel does listen to the 911 calls one quiet evening at home. Steeling herself, she begins the recordings, at which point the scene shifts to the night of the killing; it’s as if she had hit play on a grotesque movie. As DuVernay cuts back and forth between Isabel and that night, you hear George Zimmerman, a largely offscreen presence, talking to a dispatcher as he follows the worried teenager in his car. (“He’s running.”) You also watch as a terrified Martin struggles for his life. DuVernay’s staging here is blunt, visceral and harrowingly intimate. Isabel is shaken and so are you, in part because the 911 calls in the re-enactment are real.
“Origin” doesn’t tip that the calls are real, though it’s obvious. (Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, is thanked in the credits.) The calls are excruciating. They intensify the palpable urgency that defines “Origin” from its opening and informs even outwardly ordinary scenes, urgency that feels very much like the sounding of an alarm. DuVernay has consistently drawn from history in her work, including in her documentary “13TH” (about the racism of the American prison system), her period drama “Selma” (about the 1965 march and the events preceding it) and her Netflix series “When They See Us” (about the teenage victims known as the Central Park Five). For her, history isn’t a random dusty box to open; it is a living thing.
This explains, I think — beyond obvious commercial considerations — DuVernay’s decision to turn Wilkerson into Isabel, the empathetic heroine of a story larger than any one person. DuVernay fleshes out the character from the start in homey scenes of Isabel with her family, so you’re smitten quickly. And Ellis-Taylor helps keeps you on the character’s side even when you wonder where she’s headed and why. Isabel is an appealing, celebrated public intellectual. As such, she lives in her head (she often misplaces her keys), but she also lives in a body shaped and buffeted by a past that is always present, a past that at times reveals itself in meaningful details: in a flirty joke, a misty story and the memory of a Tuskegee airman.
As a character, Isabel doesn’t simply make this material approachable, she embodies it, putting it into warm, breathing, at times weeping terms, much like the characters in the historical episodes. It’s instructive that DuVernay shows Isabel falling apart after she endures great personal loss and before she goes deep into her investigation into caste. When her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) comforts her, murmuring “I’m right here,” the film shifts into a deeper melodramatic register that, in its raw emotion, is startling and touching. It is a potent reminder that Isabel’s intellectual project isn’t some dry exercise; it is, instead, a search for meaning that insists history is also written on bodies and through lived experience.
Not everything works. There are too many scenes and DuVernay clutters the narrative by over-cutting among them; she also, in an attempt to strengthen Isabel’s ideas, needlessly stages one scene in a Nazi extermination camp and another on a ship transporting captive Africans during the Middle Passage. More prosaically, Isabel’s research can seem less like work and more like tourism, especially when she’s drifting through museums and libraries. It’s in a Berlin exhibition, for one, that she learns of the connection between old American racial classifications, in which anyone of mixed ancestry was considered Black, and Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg race laws, which segregated Jews from so-called Aryans.
“Caste” has generated criticism, including for its omission of class politics; as the historian Charisse Burden-Stelly points out in the journal Boston Review, the word capitalism never appears in the book. For his part, the author Sunil Khilnani, writing in The New Yorker, sees in Wilkerson’s book “more grim continuity than hopeful departures, more regression to the mean than moments of progress.” Despite its well-wrought, meaningful tears, “Origin” is, by contrast, extraordinarily hopeful. It never makes a persuasive case for Isabel’s thesis, but I’m not convinced it needs to. For DuVernay, speaking to the convulsions of a past that shape us is a moral imperative, and so too is the optimism that is finally her film’s greatest argument.
Source: New York Times