In Origin, Ava DuVernay faces an almost impossible task, to adapt not just a work of non-fiction, not just a prize-winning text, but an almost academic thematic exploration into the defining characteristic that links oppressive systems across time and continent into a feature film. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, is a towering work comparing the experiences of oppressed classes in Nazi Germany, America, and India, seeking a sort of unified theory of oppression and discrimination that extends beyond mere racism as an explanation. This leads her to conduct global research while simultaneously dealing with devastating losses in her personal life. DuVernay’s challenge is to make both Caste and Isabel Wilkerson not only sympathetic but understandable to audiences.
She begins with perfect casting. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor stars as Isabel, projecting intelligence, empathy-driven curiosity, and painful vulnerability as the author. As portrayed by Ellis-Taylor, Isabel is not a woman driven by clinical inquiry, but a genuine desire to unpack and understand the world around her, especially as an escape from the grief haunting her. Jon Bernthal stars as Isabel’s husband, Brett, toning down his rascally side in favor of playing the doting husband, and Emily Yancy stars as Ruby, Isabel’s mother. Within the span of a year, Isabel loses Brett and her mother, unmooring her after a stated intention to “focus on family” after completing her first book, the prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns. (The “Jon Bernthal Shows Up And Something Bad Happens” streak remains unbroken.)
After these losses, which occur just as Donald Trump is becoming president, Isabel is spurred to start picking at a thread sewn years before, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder by George Zimmerman. When a newspaper editor, Amari (Blair Underwood), asks her to write about the murder—which is depicted on screen, and the real 911 calls play in voiceover—she demurs, but does ask the question of why a Latino man would “deputize himself” and kill a Black boy. Years later, she revisits that question with a proposed thesis: it’s not just race that divides America, but a caste system in which Black Americans are the outcast class. Isabel sees a connection between America, Nazi Germany, and India, but her editor (Vera Farmiga) struggles to see the same connection.
Because watching someone research is only so interesting, DuVernay intersperses throughout the film vignettes telling the stories of some of the subjects demonstrating Isabel’s thesis. There are August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock) and Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti, who is of Italian-Jewish descent), a German man and Jewish woman married in Nazi Germany, as well as married anthropologists Allison Davis (Isha Blaaker) and Elizabeth Davis (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who witnessed book burning in Berlin and then lived in the segregated South along with a white couple, the Gardners, in order to study segregation’s impact on society. There are also interstitials focused on Dr. BR Ambedkar, the pioneering Dalit economist and politician who drafted India’s constitution and worked to abolish “untouchability” from India’s legal system.
Origin is, like Caste itself, a dense, multi-layered work. Between the historical flashbacks, Isabel’s personal grief journey, and the thorny nature of her research, the film often feels weighed down and inescapably depressing. Even lighter moments, like Isabel spending time with her cousin, Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), become depressing as Marion’s health worsens and ultimately fails. But Isabel plows ahead, and this becomes DuVernay’s thesis with the film. If Wilkerson is seeking explanation in her book, DuVernay is seeking connection in her film. Isabel has a number of encounters with people that shape her thesis and sharpen her words, such as a MAGA-hat wearing plumber (Nick Offerman) whose chilly reception of Isabel melts slightly when they make a connection over memories of their parents.
It's not that DuVernay is reducing Caste to a simple “if we just talk to each other, we can all get along” message. But there is a reason DuVernay retitled her film—she isn’t making the same point as Wilkerson. Caste is an explanation, Origin is a journey through Isabel’s personal upheaval that humanizes the thesis at the center of Caste. The result is a film that is as much about socio-cultural systems as it is grief and healing. It feels a little bit that 135 minutes isn’t enough time to do the subject justice, and if this was a straight adaptation of Caste, no, it wouldn’t be. But again, Origin is about Isabel the person, not the actual book she wrote.
DuVernay, who wrote the script, has to unpack Isabel’s thesis so that we understand the questions driving her research, but ultimately, she is more concerned with how Isabel arrives at her conclusion through her period of (tremendous) loss. Origin is a companion piece to Caste that extracts the author from her thesis and makes her explicable as a person seeking an answer in the wake of unimaginable loss—from the barely comprehensible murder of an innocent teenager to the sudden death of her husband to the passing of her mother and her cousin. Plagued by so much loss, Isabel Wilkerson looked outward for answers; in Origin, Ava DuVernay turns the lens back onto Isabel and finds healing in connection.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.