Star Rating:


Director: Ava DuVernay

Actors: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal

Release Date: Friday 8th March 2024

Genre(s): Drama, Factual

Running time: 135 minutes

Following the sudden death of her husband (Jon Bernthal) and against the backdrop of racially-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin, writer Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) begins to research the origins of bigotry and how it correlates to caste systems around the world, from ancient India to Nazi Germany through to modern times...

Many movies and filmmakers throughout the years have tried to earnestly wrestle with the deep-seated roots of bigotry and racial violence in American history. It's a topic so vast, so nuanced, so close to the bone, that any kind of examination on the topic often requires an incredible amount of ambition and a director willing to look at the most delicate and uncomfortable aspects of modern society. In 'Origin', Ava DuVernay attempts to marry together the non-fiction book 'Caste' with a biographical account of the author's life and work in the same movie.

'Origin' opens with a recreation of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted by a jury of his peers of second-degree murder and manslaughter. From there, the movie takes us into the research of Isabel Wilkerson and follows both her personal life falling apart following the death of her mother, her husband and her young cousin, and how she begins to unpack the notion of racism and oppression as it relays both in the US and abroad. We see Wilkerson, played with real vibrancy and depth by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she has deep conversations with Germans about the comparisons between slavery in the Deep South and Nazi extermination of Jewish people in Germany.

DuVernay uses these scenes in conjunction with recreations of the stories Wilkerson recounts, such as the story of August Landmesser, an ex-Nazi Party member who was married to a Jewish woman and eventually tried to flee the country. Landmesser is also believed to be the man in the famous photograph who refused to salute the Nazis in a shipyard in Hamburg, and discusses the impact of the Nuremberg Laws and how the Nazis were inspired by American eugenics laws. 'Origin' then moves further into the caste system, moving towards modern times when it deals with the discrimination of Dalit people in India and tells the story of social reformer Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar.

While 'Origin' utilises an emotional framework for directing this information, namely Isabel Wilkerson dealing with her own feelings towards racism in the US and her own grief, the ambition of it all outstrips the execution. You get the sense in watching 'Origin' that it may have succeeded more as a documentary than a narrative movie. Indeed, some of DuVernay's most comprehensive work has been in documentaries, including the incredible '13th', which was nominated for Best Documentary and received a surge of interest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It isn't that 'Origin' doesn't work or that it lacks depth or substance - far from it. Rather, 'Origin' often becomes laboured when it tries to keep the various strings of its story together by keeping the personal story and the wider epic intertwined. Nevertheless, it has a powerful message and one that is urgently needed.