Ava DuVernay’s Provocative Race Drama ‘Origin’ Is Far Too Ambitious

Photo Courtesy of J4A and Array

VENICE, Italy—Origin, the new film by Ava DuVernay, is essentially an exploration of the genesis of and ideas in Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 non-fiction book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent—a text which argues that caste is a more useful organizing concept to describe power hierarchies around the world, than race and racism. That’s a bold and perhaps controversial contention, which makes it a tricky subject for a narrative film, as opposed to a documentary. The film’s disjointed execution bears that fear out, in a series of vignettes stuck together with glue and masking tape, taken from history, academia, and Wilkerson’s own life. To say that that makes for a film of variable quality would be an understatement.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning writer (we know this because people say to her, “You are a Pulitzer-winning writer!”) who is inspired to write the book by the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012. A journalist friend passes her the as-yet unreleased recordings of the event, asking her to write an article about it for his newspaper: Wilkerson, going through difficulties with her aging mother and the sale of her house, is instead moved to start work on a far more expansive work. The film then depicts her arguing, to a white friend at a party, that racism is a limited and limiting concept, because it describes too many functionally different attitudes and behaviors.

Origin’s quite mealy explication of the text on which it is based frequently impairs the film, such as in a scene where Wilkerson explains to friends that, whereas the swastika is illegal in Germany, in the United States the confederate flag, which is the United States’ equivalent of the swastika, can still be seen in many places, including the then official flag of Mississippi. Her friends solemnly explain that, on the contrary, Germany no longer contains any monuments to Nazism. This all feels quite Racial History 101: Who are these grown-up people having this sort of conversation over dinner in the 2010s? The film repeatedly oversimplifies Wilkerson’s polemic, dumbing down the argument for an audience that may well start to feel patronized.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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