Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Premise: A dramatization of author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) writing her 2020 book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents which searches for a common link between different instances of oppression including American slavery, the Holocaust, and the Indian caste system.
What Works: Origin takes the audience behind the scenes of the writing of a book and the results are more interesting that that may sound. Isabel Wilkerson’s thesis links together various examples of oppression and injustice from around the world, trying to understand why similar discrimination occurs in different societies. She argues that it is the hierarchical structures of society, whether based on skin color or ethnicity or social class, that are at the root of these injustices. It’s a provocative and ambitious argument that is presented effectively. The filmmakers streamline the material and Wilkerson travels the globe while researching her book which adds some visual novelty. The goal of Origin is to advance conversations about discrimination and why it happens. That necessarily means getting beyond some of our comfortable paradigms and Origin effectively leads the viewer to see these topics from a different angle. Origin has several scenes of Wilkerson trying to convince people of her thesis and these moments model how to discuss emotionally charged subject matter.
What Doesn’t: Origin is a docudrama in the true sense of the word; it mixes documentary and dramatic filmmaking. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really work as either. A documentary is a work of journalism and the point is to take an expository approach to the subject whereas a dramatic work is more interested in the emotional and poetic truths which are often revealed in indirect ways. Those approaches are at odds in Origin with each part of the film disconnected from the other. There’s not much of a story here. The film aims to dramatize Isabel Wilkerson’s research and writing of Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents but there’s very little conflict or struggle in that story. She has trouble convincing some people of the links between the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Indian caste system but not in ways that create a meaningful conflict. Wilkerson loses some people to illness but this is disconnected from her academic work. The dramatic material doesn’t enhance the documentary portion and frequently obstructs it. The filmmakers succeed in laying out the basics of Wilkerson’s argument but the material is treated superficially.
Bottom Line: Origin is a well-intended picture and the argument it presents has great potential to advance the conversation around race and injustice. As a work of cinema, it doesn’t quite succeed as either a documentary or a feature film.
Episode: #983 (February 4, 2024)