Metro Weekly

‘Origin’ is a Sprawling Tearjerker with the Power to Change Minds

Ava DuVernay's boldly original "Origin" laces a writer's eye-opening philosophical journey with gripping personal drama.

Origin: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor - Photo: Atsushi Nisijima/Neon
Origin: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor – Photo: Atsushi Nisijima/Neon

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is simply breathtaking in Origin, starring as a celebrated writer diligently solving the puzzle that is her latest book, while also facing unfathomable personal adversity.

The book she’s writing happens to be the nonfiction best-seller that inspired this film: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson. In Caste, published in 2020, Wilkerson examines the racial hierarchy in America as a caste system, not unlike systems of oppression in India and in Nazi Germany that have enforced dynamics of superiority and inferiority based on characteristics other than race.

“We call everything racism. It’s a default,” asserts Isabel, beautifully portrayed by Ellis-Taylor, to newspaper editor Amari (Blair Underwood). He’s trying to lure the Pulitzer-winning former journalist back to the paper to write an in-depth piece on the racial dynamics haunting the then-recent killing of Trayvon Martin. She insists that the case, which Amari views as a clearly racist incident, is rather a reflection of caste.

As she sees it, racism is “insufficient” as a paradigm for understanding why a self-deputized Latino man would assume the responsibility of policing a Black youth in a predominantly white neighborhood. Examining the case, she starts piecing together commonalities between caste systems across civilizations, sparking the idea for what could be a groundbreaking book.

Her research comes alive in dramatizations of the individual cases she studies, like the doomed love story of Irma (Victoria Pedretti), a Jewish woman in Hitler’s Germany, and August (Finn Wittrock), a German factory worker and member of the Nazi Party, who defies his party’s campaign of terror and violence against the Jews to hold onto his love.

Accompanied by Isabel’s vivid narration, scenes of Irma and August alternate with the tale of married couple Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas-Jones), two Black writers in Berlin who also witness the rise of the Nazis, before getting out of Europe, and penning their own nonfiction survey of the caste system in the U.S.

Through their stories, and Trayvon’s, the film illustrates Isabel’s meticulous process of distinguishing historical events and current social ills as issues of caste.

She also visits Berlin, where she dines with typically blunt Berliner Sabine (Connie Nielsen), who professes she doesn’t see a connection between the Holocaust and racist oppression in America. Slavery had the goal of subjugation, Sabine argues, while the aim of the Holocaust was extermination. Now, “Everything Hitler is gone,” while, in America, you can still find statues honoring slavers and Confederates.

Heady but accessible, the film seems didactic by design. Ava DuVernay, who wrote and directed the film, wants to impart lessons, or, like the book, to challenge viewers to consider oppression in a way that does not center race, and maybe recalibrates your notions about caste.

But the film doesn’t dwell just in Isabel’s thoughts and processes. She has a busy life with loving husband Brett (Jon Bernthal); an aging mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy), whom she’s just moved into a retirement home; and the daily pressure of having yet to follow-up the massive success of her first book.

Origin – Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Neon

She also has her dear cousin, Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts, a treat, as usual), to lean on, which turns out to be an indispensable lifeline after Isabel suffers through a year of tremendous losses that she couldn’t have possibly imagined. Ellis-Taylor, adding to her engaging portrait of Isabel’s intellectual ambition and curiosity, also plunges with brilliant honesty into the depths of her grief.

In one standout scene, it’s through that grief that she forges an unexpected connection with a MAGA hat-wearing plumber — played by Nick Offerman, in a bravura cameo — who comes to fix a leak at her mom’s house. Audra McDonald also pops in for a memorable cameo, and another moving scene with Ellis-Taylor, as Isabel’s friend with the unlikely name “Miss,” who shares a gutting account of one of the most searingly dehumanizing experiences of her life.

Isabel’s personal encounters, along with her research, acquaint her with intimate details in the lives of others who’ve suffered, persevered, and overcome, which she’s struggling to do.

The brilliance of DuVernay’s adaptation is in how she fuses the disparate stories, true or fictionalized, present-day or period, and the book’s powerful concepts, into an emotionally coherent drama that’s somehow deeply sentimental yet rigorously cerebral, a sprawling tearjerker with the power to change minds.

Origin (★★★★☆) is playing in select theaters nationwide. Visit

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