Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Origin’ on Hulu, Ava DuVernay’s Unwieldy but Powerful Drama About the Basis of Racism

Ava DuVernay uses unusual means to wrap her arms around a massive subject in Origin (now streaming on Hulu), which blends the stuff of biopics, historical dramas and documentaries as it dramatizes the conception and composition of Isabel Wilkerson’s prominent bestselling social study Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, as well as the books core ideas. That’s a lot, but no one could ever accuse DuVernay – best known for the features Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, and the documentary 13th – of lacking ambition. She casts King Richard Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson, who works through myriad personal challenges while writing the book that became a cultural touchstone after its publication in 2020. The film is a difficult watch on a couple different levels, but also a worthy one. 

ORIGIN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: We open on a dramatization of Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost) buying candy at a convenience store and chatting with a friend on his phone as he walks home. He says he thinks he’s being followed by someone in a truck. We know what happened next. Cut to Isabel Wilkerson (Ellis-Taylor) helping her elderly mother Ruby (Emily Yancy) out of bed. Isabel’s husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) lifts Ruby into her wheelchair so they can visit a retirement home. It’s time. It’s hard. No one wants to be here, but everyone knows this step must be taken. Ruby’s making the best of it: “At least there’s good light,” she says of her new home. Next we see a scene from 1930s Germany, where one man, August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), refuses to raise his arm while standing amidst a crowd of fellow shipyard workers heiling the Nazi regime. He’s the subject of an academic lecture by Isabel, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of multiple-award-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns. Isabel is under pressure by her publishers to write another book, and editors want her to return to newspaper work and pen something about Trayvon Martin. Her response to the latter is, “I’m on hiatus.”

But the former? It’s starting to come together – via conversations with her mother about Trayvon, and research about Allison (Isha Blaaker) and Elizabeth Davis (Jasmine Cephas Jones), a Black couple who were studying in Germany during the 1930s and witnessed Nazi marches and book burnings that mirrored the violence wrought upon protestors by white supremacists in Charlottesville. Isabel doesn’t believe systemic racism is necessarily the great societal ill, but rather, the idea of caste, which can be found in many societies – it’s the umbrella notion hovering over American slavery, Nazi Germany and, notably, India, where bigotry has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Meanwhile, Isabel faces excruciating challenges when Brett very suddenly dies, and her mother passes away. Her beloved cousin Marion (Niecy Nash) helps her through her depressive grief. The basement floods, and the White repairman (Nick Offerman, in a drop-in cameo) wears a “make America great again” hat; it takes a pointed discussion of their late parents to cut through his cold demeanor and fix the problem.

As she preps her mother’s crumbling home to sell, Isabel dives headlong into her research. She visits Germany, where the Davises studied, and the film cuts between Isabel researching the Davises as the Davises conduct their own research. We see moments in which Landmesser falls in love with a Jewish woman and tries to protect her from the Nazi regime. She attends a family reunion, where Marion listens carefully to Isabel’s ideas about caste and replies to them by saying, essentially, speak plainly so everyone can understand this heady stuff. Isabel visits India where she learns about the Dalits, lower-caste Indians who suffered significant historical oppression, and are still to this day forced to work in septic systems with their bare hands; cue scenes of men oiling themselves down before they dive into vats of human waste to clear clogs. As contractors fix up her mother’s house and Marion fights severe illness, Isabel writes and reads and studies and researches and interviews people and scrawls ideas on a big whiteboard. Her book will be significant. 

Origin
Photo: NEON

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: They’re from wildly different genres, but DuVernay put a similar, highly ambitious stamp on both Origin and A Wrinkle in Time, the latter struggling and failing but arguably forging a path for the former’s creative success.

Performance Worth Watching: Often a rock-solid supporting player – and here we once again namecheck her well-earned best supporting actress Oscar nod for King Richard – Ellis-Taylor proves to be a worthwhile lead, and capable of carrying a challenging film on her shoulders.

Memorable Dialogue: Isabel’s retort to an editor who’s content with her posing questions in a piece about Trayvon: “I don’t write questions. I write answers.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Origin is ambitious nearly to a fault. It’s a difficult and weighty film that nevertheless finds powerful agency in its portrait of a woman who, as she tries to make sense of great societal ills while in the throes of mourning, is caught between looking back and moving forward. The rehabilitation of her mother’s home becomes an allegory for that core idea, and if it’s a bit overwrought and unsubtle, it still wields distinctively poignant power. Additionally, the complex, multi-layered narrative in which Isabel wrestles with ideas of the past and present – with a goal of a more hopeful and enlightened future – surely mirrors how DuVernay fought to tell this story, which brims with significance despite its unwieldy nature. Does it all come together coherently? Not particularly. But what in life does? 

The director’s use of 16mm film lends a graininess to the visuals that suggest a lack of true clarity – and here I note that true clarity is pretty much impossible to achieve in any context or art form. That Wilkerson made profound connections, and shared potent revelations, about the roots of oppression and prejudice is massive on its own; it’s not a clean and easy task, and Origin captures that in its patchwork of montages, slo-mo melodrama, academic conversations, flashbacks and flash-forwards, and poetic, magical-realist scenes in which Isabel imagines herself in the past, sharing the pain of suffering people (not to mention quick, in-and-out roles from notables such as Connie Nielsen, Blair Underwood, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald and Offerman). There are moments where dialogue becomes too much like lectures, where timelines become confused and tangled, where points must be overstated in order to overcome the morass of high-minded concepts and base-level grief. But it’s fascinating, often absorbing drama intent on making us experience both enlightenment and emotion, and that’s undoubtedly significant. 

Our Call: Origin is far from a casual watch, but for those up to the marathon-like task, it’s rewarding. STREAM IT. 

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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