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Hollywood movies have a problem with intellectual endeavor; just look at the thinly imagined inner lives of the titular protagonists of “Oppenheimer” and “Maestro.” But Ava DuVernay’s new movie, “Origin,” a bio-pic about the journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), has no such problem. It’s hard to recall a movie made for general audiences that takes ideas so seriously, that makes the pursuit of them appear so thrilling, or that is so replete with the intellectual substance of the protagonist’s endeavors. Even good movies about writers often downplay the hard part—their work. DuVernay embraces Wilkerson’s work wholeheartedly and rises to the artistic challenge with one of the most unusual and ingenious of recent screenplays. The film is based on Wilkerson’s 2020 book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” and DuVernay’s approach—turning a work of historical and sociological nonfiction into a dramatized story centering on its author—is audacious. The narrative framework is capacious enough to give free rein to Wilkerson’s intellectual curiosity, to pursue the subjects of her attention far, and to parse their details clearly; and within this framework, DuVernay establishes a wellspring of narrative tension that makes the activities of research, contemplation, and writing dramatically captivating onscreen.
The stakes of the drama, and of Wilkerson’s subjects of study, are heralded by the movie’s opening scene, which depicts not Wilkerson (or, rather, let’s call the character Isabel) but, instead, a young man who buys snacks from a convenience store, puts up his hoodie against the inclement weather, and realizes, as he walks home, that someone is following him. The young man is Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost), and he would soon be confronted and killed by George Zimmerman, who wrongly assumed that he was up to no good. Meanwhile, Isabel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Times who’s on hiatus from the paper, is in Germany, delivering a lecture about a German resister to the Nazi regime. There, she runs into a Times editor, Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood), who wants her to write about the Trayvon Martin case. She hesitates, but listens to the 911 tapes of the incident that he forwards. (It’s illustrative of DuVernay’s method that, as Isabel listens, the events that the tapes refer to unfold onscreen.) Isabel begins to speculate that the case involves something more than just racism, and that the term isn’t sufficient to describe the injustices borne by Black Americans.
The idea that Isabel comes up with is embodied in the title of the book that she soon embarks on writing. In the course of her research, she finds striking similarities among the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the subordination of Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”) in India, and the enslavement and oppression of Black people in the United States. The concept that best unites these injustices, she contends, is that of caste. The research leading to this conclusion begins in a seemingly casual way: Isabel is in the tub reading “Deep South,” a classic study of American race relations by Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, from 1941. In her mind’s eye, she sees a crucial episode in the book’s backstory. In the early thirties, Davis (Isha Carlos Blaaker) and his wife and collaborator, Elizabeth (Jasmine Cephas Jones), were both pursuing graduate studies in anthropology. In 1933, their work took them to the University of Berlin, and these two Black Americans suddenly found themselves witnessing the Nazi takeover. Dramatizing these scenes, DuVernay doesn’t just enliven the static activity of reading a book. The juxtaposition of political cataclysm and the tranquillity of the tub captures the feeling of mental excitement, imbuing the life of the mind with physical energy.
Such fusion of history and subjectivity—the way DuVernay interweaves quasi-documentary evocations with a fictionalized drama of Isabel’s personal life—is one of the film’s principal achievements. When Isabel returns to Berlin to further her research into the Nazi era, her trenchant political discussions with friends and colleagues are intertwined with her visits to the city’s actual Holocaust memorial and museum. This, in turn, merges with her envisionings (and DuVernay’s depictions) of other critical events of Nazi history: book burnings; public humiliation and brutalization of Jews; and a meeting of high officials, including Joseph Goebbels (Daniel Lommatzsch), who explicitly draw on the model of Jim Crow as they frame the antisemitic Nuremberg laws.
“Origin” employs a roving chronology, continually moving from Isabel’s life in the narrative present, to her memories, to historical events, and even to fantasies and dreams that bind her intimately to the subjects of her work. The drama becomes, as a result, a daring blend of fiction and nonfiction. Through her mind’s eye, we see the murderous agonies of the Middle Passage, the establishment of Jim Crow, lynchings and other acts of racial terrorism, and the field work that produced “Deep South.” During the Great Depression, the Davises and the book’s co-authors, the Gardners (who were white, and are played by Hannah Pniewski and Matthew Zuk), worked, at great personal risk, as “undercover investigators” in a Mississippi town, documenting the social mechanisms of racial oppression. Likewise, when Isabel travels to India, what she learns from the Dalit intellectuals and activists she meets (including the scholar Suraj Yengde and the journalist Dhrubo Jyoti, playing themselves) is brought to the screen via her imagination: the subjections that Dalits endure; the career of the twentieth-century Dalit lawyer and legislator Bhimrao Ambedkar; the details of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s trip to India, in 1959.
Throughout, Isabel’s professional activity proves inseparable from her private life. She loses her husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal) and her mother (Emily Yancy) in rapid succession, and later her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts). All three play crucial roles in the development of “Caste”: Brett exhorts her to keep working; Marion helps her find the right tone for the book; and her mother tips her off, in a wondrously roundabout way, to a long-ago local incident of racism that becomes a crucial part of her research and yields one of the film’s most painfully vivid sequences. Such bonds get warm and brisk depictions, including poignant flashbacks to Isabel’s life with Brett (who is white) and considerations of the welcome that he got, or didn’t get, from her extended family.
The narrative framework may be elaborate, but the movie’s emotional power is straightforward and, at times, overwhelming—nowhere more than in a discussion between Isabel, her mother, and Brett about the killing of Trayvon Martin. When the older woman says that the teen-ager was courting trouble by being in a white neighborhood, Brett, with all the confidence of a successful white man, says, “You can’t live your life based on what’s intimidating to people.” His mother-in-law’s reply bears the weight and wisdom of painful experience that he can hardly fathom: “Sure you can, sweetie.” Yancy delivers the line with quiet grace, and the way that DuVernay films the scene, with subtle distortions and disturbances of space, hints at the enormous implications of a seemingly casual discussion. There’s a similarly powerful sequence when Isabel meets a Black woman with the unusual name of Miss Hale (Audra McDonald), whose story of how she got it and how she made use of it resounds with the daily courage under fire that marks Black lives even after the Jim Crow years. No dramatized imaginings there; McDonald’s fervently nuanced delivery gives the words themselves an almost visible presence.
The creative freedom with which the movie slips between time frames, blurs the boundaries between the objective and subjective realms, and intertwines private life with political history wouldn’t be out of place in the confrontationally modernist movies of Alain Resnais or Ingmar Bergman. The same is true of the intricate interplay between the images on screen and the soundtrack, a sonic canvas of historical narratives, philosophical discussions, and internal monologues. It’s all the more remarkable that DuVernay achieves this mighty and entrancing complexity in a movie that does double duty as hearty Hollywood-style entertainment. ♦