Words like “important” and “vital” are thrown around possibly a little too much in film criticism. It’s not that we don’t mean it — it’s just that sometimes we (ok, I) can get a bit excited. And when watching and reviewing good films in real time, it’s impossible to know what is yet to come. Will there be something else that makes that superlative seem silly in retrospect? Often times, yes.
The book in question is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” in which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson offers an overriding theory about power and hierarchy and systemic dehumanization in social structures, connecting the Black experience in America to the Dalits of India and Jewish people in Nazi Germany. The New York Times reviewer called it one of the most powerful non-fiction books he’d ever encountered and “the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far."
That “Caste” was appealing to DuVernay, who has made documentaries like “13th,” connecting slavery to mass incarceration of Black men, is not surprising. What’s she’s done with it is. Instead of rehashing the facts of the book, DuVernay has turned “Caste” into an investigative, fictionalized drama in which we follow the character Isabel Wilkerson as she puts the pieces together while her life crumbles.
With an unconventional structure, in which we are often transported to different stories in different times, in the American South, Nazi Germany and early 20th century India, “Origin” is nonetheless alarmingly effective, a riveting and haunting journey to a kind of enlightenment.
Wilkerson is played beautifully by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, an actor deep enough to engage with the academic and intellectual inquiries of the film, and charismatic enough to make what sounds like homework absorbing. Hers is the kind of 360-degree Black woman that we don’t see leading films very often: She is at once confident and full of doubt and vulnerability, accomplished but searching, determined and still wary. And she’s unafraid to pursue her hunch that everyone, civilians and book editors alike, seems to be telling her isn’t worth it.
This is a character who is surrounded by love when we meet her, with a fairly perfect and supportive husband (Jon Bernthal), her aging mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) and a cousin/confidant in Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts). She is not immediately interested in an assignment about Trayvon Martin, and is a bit stuck knowing that whatever she does, she’ll have to give herself over fully to it. In “Origin,” a push comes in the form of loss and her research takes on a vital urgency to, not to be too hyperbolic, figure out why everything is rotten before she too leaves the earth.
DuVernay takes us into her findings as Wilkerson learns about a group of Harvard students, two Black, two white, who integrate themselves into a segregated Southern community to study it, a Nazi party member who fell in love with a Jewish woman, and an Indian intellectual who rose out of his lowly caste and advocated for Dalit rights. They feel a bit like different movies. But while it might not be the most elegantly stitched together anthology, it works on a gut level. DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor commit to the big swing, and audiences who give it a chance may find themselves changed — or at least a little more curious, a little more alert — because of it.
Is it premature to say that “Origin” might just be DuVernay’s magnum opus? Well, perhaps. But hopefully it’s the start of a vibrant and bold new era of storytelling for her, with those pesky wrinkles in time firmly in the rearview mirror.
“Origin,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “scenes of violence.” Running time: 135 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.