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Origin ★★★★



Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga

Released: Venice Film Festival 2023

Ava DuVernay’s Origin begins as a microcosm of everything about modern Hollywood that many people have come to dislike. It’s preachy, politically divisive, chattering class smug, dismissive of those with different views. And it feels like it will be a long, arduous journey to the closing credits. But then the film changes gear and starts travelling in another direction. It still, at points, feels like a university lecture but one where the professor is so excited by a discovery that you can’t help but sit up and listen. The rest of the time, it’s alternately utterly absorbing and, over and over again, able to break your heart until you’re silently sobbing.

Based on the best-selling book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by African-American writer and commentator Isabel Wilkerson, the film explores, powerfully and emotively, the notion of caste. Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. The caste system is hierarchical, under which one group is considered superior. It is not to be confused, argues Wilkerson, with racism, although it often is. For example, the caste system in India operates for all brown-skinned people, albeit in varying shades. Yet the Brahmins are at the top of the chain, and the Dalits, known as the untouchables, are at the bottom. The Dalits are not to be touched, and they, in turn, are not to touch the person or belongings of the higher castes. It was caste, says Wilkerson, not colour, that singled out the white Jewish people from other white groups in Germany during the holocaust. She argues it is caste, too, that better explains slavery than racism.

Wilkerson is played by an excellent Aunjanue Ellis, who will likely be a strong contender for the Best Actress awards during awards season. The ‘lecture’ is engrossing because DuVernay brings theory alive through Wilkerson’s travels to Germany, India and across the USA, as well as flashbacks to the work and life of Allison and Elizabeth Davis, a black couple whose 1941 book Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class provided the foundation for Wilkerson’s ideas.

The research and interviews Wilkerson conducts allow DuVernay to lay bare the brutal degradation of the Dalits in India, who are forced to clear sewage with their bare hands in exchange for leftover food, the dehumanising of Jewish adults and children as just one mass of unidentifiable humanity with their shorn heads and gas camp uniforms and the interconnection of Nazi legislation with the Jim Crow laws in the segregated USA. With her idea of caste being the pernicious kernel of subjugation rather than race, Wilkerson seeks to draw together many threads, including the shooting of black teenage Trayvon Martin, her white husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), slavery, segregation, antisemitism and the myths of superiority and inferiority between humans.

And if all that sounds too heavy, we have Wilkerson’s cousin Marion (Niecy Nash) asking her to break it down at a family barbecue so that a non-Pulitzer Prize winner can understand it. Wilkerson obliges with an infectious enthusiasm that spills over into the audience. But the heart and soul of Origin lie in the heart-wrenching way DuVernay weaves the tragedies of Wilkerson’s personal life into her work and professional awakening.

Bereavement, loss, and grief can be as tricky on film as comedy. DuVernay, aided ably by Ellis, handles all three with a poetic delicacy that does not diminish the gut-wrenching effect on the one left behind who experiences it as a body blow. Isabel Wilkerson lost the three most influential people in her life during her research and writing. After having had chunks of your heart ripped away, how to be and carry on is no easy task in real life or real life. It’s a testament to the direction and performance of DuVernay and Ellis, respectively, that we, as an audience, feel every beat of Wilkerson’s sorrow and heartbreak and come out the other end with hope.

Origin is likely to gain DuVernay a Best Director nomination and maybe the Golden Lion at Venice, where she became the first African-American woman to have a film in competition. If she wins, it will be the start of clearing some space on her mantelpiece.

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