The second part of this year’s Venice Film Festival shines with at least two firsts: Ava DuVernay is the first African-American female director competing for the Golden Lion, here with a film about Isabel Wilkerson, the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. Origin is inspired by Wilkerson’s seminal 2020 book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, but is a stand-alone cinematic retelling of a life, work, and the process of uncovering, from within, the perilous paradigms that shape our social structures. Even if such a premise reads a bit dry, DuVernay’s dedication to rawness and realism puts literary and conceptual devices to good use to make an affecting, vital film for our times.
Portraying Isabel is Aunjanue Ellis Taylor (Lovecraft Country, King Richard), who made a promising collaboration with DuVernay on her 2019 show When They See Us. For Origin, the actress channels all her untiring devotion to craft a character who is both a guide and a companion. It’s very rare seeing female journalists and theoreticians on screen, let alone Black women excelling in these white-upper-class, male-oriented careers, but the bravery that radiates from Ellis Taylor is compelling on its own. Her character is strong, but not overwhelming. On the contrary, the viewer can easily empathize with the loss of her husband and of her ailing mother. When the ground beneath your feet opens up and threatens to suck you in, what do you do? Create. Find meaning in places where only unspeakable violence reigned.
Wilkerson digs through her grief and finds meaning in her intellectual work. Throughout does the audience also feel the weight of her discoveries, Origin making a fascinating plot device out of philosophical and historical research. The way concepts interact with each other––in the case of race and class––is rendered cinematic: not only through the voiceover highlighting whole sentences, but also by the visual aid of historical flashbacks. Here an otherwise-literary device of flashback serves a political purpose. Cinematographer Matthew Lloyd and editor Spencer Averick create a plastic world of historical and personal memories that feels seamless even when it’s torn apart by cruelty, rejection, mourning. The film’s push against hierarchy on a theoretical level matches its practice with the decision to use multiple cameras with equal importance for the final product (rather than having a first and second unit), assuring the images carry the same emotional weight when put together.
And so Wilkerson digs through Nazi and Holocaust archives, studies critical race theory, and uncovers the chilling notion that the Third Reich’s antisemitism laws were directly influenced by American slavery. In these two instances of segregation and systemic violence, Origin finds its cinematic cues. DuVernay takes episodes of Ellis Taylor’s book to present characters with their story in retrospective shots. Even more, the director’s own research feeds into these scenes to expand them and give them a life of their own––as with August and Irma, a German member of the Nazi Party and a Jewish woman in a state-forbidden love relationship who are mentioned in the book only in passing. Through a thoughtful, sophisticated process of world-building (in the past and present), Origin outlines a comprehensive history of state- and social-sanctioned violence spanning between American slavery and Jim Crow to the Holocaust and the Indian caste system.
Origin, nevertheless, is not a historical film, but brings history alive. It does so knowing that unearthing the roots and threads of human-rights injustice is a fickle task that can easily turn dogmatic. But Ava DuVernay is a skilled, socially conscious director who uses all the tools of cinema to bear witness and shine a light on the structural violence underpinning race through the concept of caste––without making it look like a philosophical treaty.
Origin premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will be released by NEON this year.