Euronews Culture’s Film of the Week: ‘Origin’ – Ava DuVernay’s missed documentary opportunity

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Written and directed by Ava DuVernay (When They See Us, 13th), Origin is an adaptation of nonfiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”. It chronicles the life of Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis), the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, as she embarks on a writer’s journey leading to the writing of her 2020 bestseller.

The film opens with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and sees Wilkerson reluctantly drawn in by the case – especially when her mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) states that no matter how tragic the death of the young Black man is, he should have known better to walk at night in a white neighbourhood.

Wilkerson askes herself what pushed George Zimmerman, a Latino man, to deputise himself in a white community and asserts how insufficient it is that racism is the primary language to understand everything.

When her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) and her mother both die the same year, she embarks on a trip that takes her from Berlin to India, in order to establish how her mother’s comments about behavioural protocols are linked with the proud displays of Neo Nazis in the US, and how systems of oppression must be considered beyond race and more in terms of castes.

Her thesis revolves around the building of firewalls between people in order to block a shared destiny, the defining pillar of caste being endogamy.

In Berlin, she visits the Holocaust memorial, stands at The Empty Library (Bibliothek), talks with scholars and establishes a connection between the Nazis and Jim Crow. In India, she focuses on the Dalit people, known as “untouchables” – the lowest stratum of the castes in the Indian subcontinent, and throughout her interviews are interspersed dramatizations of historical figures, such as August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), who stood alone in a crowd refusing to use the Nazi salute, and Black anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas-Jones).

Origin

There’s no denying that Origin is an ambitious project, one which interweaves the story of a woman dealing with loss with a research procedural illuminating the connective tissue of global oppressive systems.

However, as the runtime progresses, the film feels like it limits itself to an academic tool, one that overeggs some obvious beats – to the extent the tone veers towards the SparkNotes version of racism in the US. And when DuVernay does focus on grief, she can’t help but topple into sentimentality. 

Some historical flashback segments do provide an emotional punch, especially the story of the young Al Bright, who was denied access to an all-whites pool after a baseball game with his team. But even the impact of this poignant re-enactment is dulled by some heartstring-pulling moments, as well as statement recurrences that grow to feel clumsy.

There are times during the film when DuVernay seems aware of the potential clunkiness of the delivery, especially through the character of Isabel’s cousin Marion (Niecy Nash), who calls out Isabel on her thesis and whether it can be expressed in human words. However, the second the white board comes out and the book’s structure is literally laid out in the final act, this making-of-the-bestseller – no matter how well executed and acted – feels like an increasingly repetitive lecture.

Fascinating and vital though it may be, Origin ends up as a scholarly endeavour that isn’t a very cinematic one.The uneven pacing underserves some of the performances, and while the final act has its moments, the rockiness that precedes it only reveals that DuVernay’s best intentions can’t quite carry her film. She is to be commended for her ambitions, but the end result is far from the stellar work many are trumpeting.

A documentary homecoming after 2016’s 13th, which excelled in tackling broad topics and difficult concepts and making them both accessible and riveting, could have served DuVernay far better.

Origin is out now in cinemas.

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