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ORIGIN (2024)

Release Date: 01/19/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Drama. History.

Studio: Neon.

"The unspoken system that has shaped America and chronicles how lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions." 


There’s no easy way to talk about racism. It’s as ugly a concept as some of the words and actions it yields. The idea that someone can view themselves as superior simply because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or the place where they were born is unthinkable. Yet it happens everywhere, and there appears to be no end in sight. Like war or a mass shooting, not only is nothing ever done to truly combat the core problem, it’s only a matter of time before it claims its next victims. 


Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Just a handful of names held in millions of open palms throughout history. Because it seems impossible to nail down a solution to the problem in the present for the future, perhaps we have to look back and learn how we got here in the first place. While it may sound  like an ambitious undertaking, it’s actually the premise of Ava DuVernay’s latest film Origin.


Based on the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the film tells the true story of author Isabel Wilkerson, who travels across the world in an effort to understand the root of racism. While the premise seems pretty straight-forward, Wilkerson’s journey is anything but that. In fact, the film doesn’t even start with her. Instead, it begins with a young Florida teen trying to make it home after a late night visit to the store. That teen is the aforementioned Trayvon Martin. 


Weeks pass, and semi-retired journalist Wilkerson (played in the film by Academy Award nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) comes across the leaked 911 tapes from the night of Martin’s murder. As the world becomes outraged with what happened, she becomes more enamored with the “why”. And not the literal reason why Martin’s killer did what he did, but why history has repeatedly allowed racism to manifest itself so violently. She eventually becomes inspired to try and trace racism through ancient cultural caste systems in an attempt to get an answer to her question. But just as she begins her research, personal tragedy strikes. Before Wilkerson can even begin to explore the world’s humanity, she is forced to re-examine her own.


Ava DuVernay is no stranger to challenging the audience. By showing he wasn’t without his vices, she made it a point to challenge the perception of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image in Selma. By holding a mirror up to a Trump-era America, she also made it a point to challenge the country to accept its own involvement in condemning the (now) Exonerative Five in When They See Us. Here, DuVernay is challenging viewers to accept the obvious, yet universally ignored truth that all injustice is equal. 


In one of Wilkerson’s earliest interviews, while abroad in Germany, she bumps heads with an old friend. Wilkerson’s friend (played by Connie Nielsen) refuses to let her argue that slavery is comparable than the Holocaust. And Nielsen’s character has some valid points. Before the audience can pick a side, however, DuVernay let’s Wilkerson’s research speak for itself. As we follow her down the rabbit hole, we learn that German officials adopted some of the same tactics Americans used to dehumanize African Americans. So slavery may not have been comparable to the Holocaust after all. It was a blueprint. 


Not all of the film’s revelations are that big though. In fact, one of the film’s most memorable moments happens just before Wilkerson even begins her journey. Shortly after her mother’s passing, Wilkerson hires a plumber to inspect her mother’s house. The plumber, played by Nick Offerman, is very visibly a Trump supporter (MAGA hat included). Initially, he dismisses Wilkerson’s worries about any floodwater and damage to the house. After less than a minute of inspecting the damage, it seems like he could care less about helping her at all. In fact, he makes it clear he intends on passing the problem along to someone else. But when she strikes up a conversation with him, opens up about her loss, and asks him about loved ones he’s lost, you feel the atmosphere change. His entire demeanor doesn’t change, but you can tell that empathy has opened him up. He no longer wants to pass the buck. He wants to help.


On paper, it sounds like a silly sequence. But it underscores the importance of human connection. And it poses a bigger question on top of the film’s primary one: would we need that feeling of superiority if we all just leveled with each other more often?


Nielsen and Offerman are just a handful of celebrities who pop in and out the film. Their roles are arguable cameos compared to some of the other actors, such as Jon Bernthal and Niecy Nash-Betts (who play Wilkerson’s husband and sister respectively). As great as all the actors are in the film, nothing can detract from the urgency of Ellis-Taylor’s powerhouse performance. 

Do not confuse urgency with timeliness. Yes, everything that Ellis-Taylor has to say as Wilkerson is relevant, but it’s her realization that she doesn’t have all the time in the world to say it that really defines her performance. It’s an incredible detail that adds to how her personal tragedy has impacted her. As each of her loved ones die, she feels the pressure of finishing what may very well be her life’s - and all life’s - work. She invests so much of both her own and our time that the final gut-punch doubles as a sigh of a sweet relief. 


But it’s hard to praise Ellis-Taylor without also praising DuVernay. As previously mentioned, it’s not just that she challenges the audience, but the way that challenges the audience here. It’s not enough to just shed a light on the root of racism. She constantly takes us back and forth to show us distinct parallels between the past and present. And not just in history, but in Wilkerson’s life too. By doing this she proves that although pain and hate recur throughout life and history, so does joy and love. 


Origin is many things: timely, smart, profound, ambitious. But above everything, it’s rare. So rare that there may never be another movie like it ever made, and that if everyone on Earth was forced to watch it once it could seriously change the trajectory of humanity. Not because of its subject matter, but for the way it underscores what it means to be human. Day to day, we become so comfortable living in our skin that we repeat the mistakes of our past. As Origin proves, unless we understand where we come from and how to use our blunders to build a better future, nothing else matters.


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