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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima, Courtesy Array Filmworks

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ava DuVernay takes an unexpected and inspired approach to a bestselling book

So much of what we need to know about Ava DuVernay’s approach to filmmaking is in the deceptively simple title of her production company: ARRAY. She has, of course, centered a wide span of voices, stories, and experiences in her work. But she’s made a point of experimenting with different approaches, too, from indie dramas (Middle of Nowhere) to essential documentaries (13th) to cinematic television (Queen Sugar).

Now she’s given us something newly unexpected in Origin, which is – meta twist – a fictional recreation of the true-life writing of a nonfiction book.

Yes, the end result is as complex as that sounds, and there are times when the threads get tangled. But there is also the sense of wonder that DuVernay’s work so often inspires, as she pushes herself beyond the norm. What’s more, Origin brings us one of the year’s most stunning performances, from lead Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (an Oscar nominee for King Richard).

Ellis-Taylor plays Isabel Wilkerson, author of the 2020 bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. There are fewer things more boring to watch than the process of a writer writing. So it’s a testament to the storytelling here that even when Origin temporarily loses its focus, it never loses your attention.

When we meet her, Isabel is already an acclaimed author and a Pulitzer-winning journalist. She’s also quietly adrift, uninspired and exhausted from caregiving for her ailing mother (Emily Yancy). When an editor (Blair Underwood) suggests she writes about the murder of Trayvon Martin, her husband (Jon Bernthal) encourages her to push forward. But it’s not until tragedy strikes – repeatedly – that she finds the purpose and clarity she needs for the task.

There’s a sense of wonder that Ava DuVernay’s work so often inspires

Her journey into the lowest depths of human behaviour evolves into an epiphany about constructed caste systems that takes her from Savannah to Berlin to New Delhi. As she travels between decades and countries, talking with experts and revisiting long-forgotten histories, she begins to understand the abiding connections between American slavery, the Holocaust, and India’s Dalit, once called ‘untouchables’.

Wilkerson’s book divides her theories on castes into neatly-structured, analytical chapters. DuVernay’s priority is to personalise her subject’s work, rather than summarise it in academic fashion. We experience the book’s themes just as Isabel does during her research, with a gradual sense of discovery and enlightenment.

It is occasionally tough to connect with the specifics of Wilkerson’s theses, as the film jumps swiftly from one to another. But it never feels as though anything important is lost, because Ellis-Taylor’s performance is so beautifully modulated that we stay right by her side as she navigates every complex idea and profound emotion. And she gets terrific support from the entire cast, including Niecy Nash-Betts, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Connie Nielsen, and Vera Farmiga in brief but impactful turns. 

Wilkerson’s book offers a new way to look at age-old concepts. DuVernay’s film gives us a new way to process them.

In US theaters now. In UK cinemas Mar 8.

Elizabeth Weitzman
Written by
Elizabeth Weitzman

Cast and crew

  • Director:Ava DuVernay
  • Screenwriter:Ava DuVernay
  • Cast:
    • Connie Nielsen
    • Jon Bernthal
    • Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
    • Finn Wittrock
    • Vera Farmiga
    • Nick Offerman
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