Producers: Paul Garnes and Ava DuVernay   Director: Ava DuVernay   Screenplay: Ava DuVernay   Cast: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Connie Nielsen, Emily Yancy, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Finn Wittock, Victoria Pedretti, Isha Blaaker, Myles Frost, Daniel Lommatzsch, Lennox Sims, Allan Wilayto, Gaurav J. Pathania, Suraj Yengde, Dhrubo Jyoti, Matthew Zuk and Hannah Pniewski Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

In making a film inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) has attempted something ambitious: dramatizing the author’s development of her thesis within a biographical framework that depicts Wilkerson’s experience as an African-American woman within a society infused with racism and as an individual touched by domestic tragedy.  “Origin” thus becomes both a film of ideas and a portrait of the personal journey that gave rise to them.  If it doesn’t manage entirely to overcome the obstacles in joining all the elements smoothly, sometimes falling into didacticism and near melodrama, its aspirations remain admirable, and its impact considerable.

It also boasts powerful performances by a strong ensemble cast.  Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor anchors the picture as Wilkerson, whose crushing losses—the deaths of her husband Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal, genially supportive), mother Ruby (Emily Yancy, endearingly spunky) and cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts, charmingly approachable)—combine with her horrified reaction to the killing of Treyvon Martin (Myles Frost) by self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman—and lead her to think about American racism in more universal terms.  She develops the argument that American discrimination against Blacks is an instance of a global embrace of caste systems that one can perceive in Nazi anti-Semitism and in the Indian hierarchy that places the Dalits, formerly called Untouchables, at the lowest level.  All, she contends, represent a process of dehumanization driven by a desire, or need, to dominate. 

She develops the thesis by visits to Germany and India designed to educate herself about the comparisons she’s drawing.  In each case DuVernay integrates historical reenactments to illustrate how Wilkerson reaches her conclusions.  In the case of Germany, she learns from visits to libraries and museums, as well as conversations with her hosts, about book-burnings and meetings among Nazi officials like Josef Goebbels (Daniel Lommatzsch) who describe Jim Crow laws as exemplars the regime can follow in developing its own discriminatory measures.  But DuVernay also includes more intimate lessons, such as the story of August Landmesser (Finn Wittock), whose romance with Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti) led him to protest the regime by refusing to give the obligatory Hitler salute, resulting in his imprisonment (she, of course, was murdered along with millions of her fellow Jews); she also relates the experience of academics Allison and Elizabeth Davis (Isha Blaaker and Jasmine Cephas-Jones), a black couple who, after visiting Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, retuned home and joined with a white couple, Burleigh and Mary Gardner (Matthew Zuk and Hannah Pniewski) to investigate the Jim Crow system in the American South.

The Indian segment concentrates on the career of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania), who oversaw the drafting of the Indian Constitution following independence and was so strong an opponent of the concept and practice of Untouchability that even today, statues of him have to be protected by cages to prevent vandalism.  Here much of the information is simply related by Suraj Yengde and Dhrubo Jyoti, who act as Wilkerson’s tour guides, as it were.

Then there is the American material which, in addition to reenactments of the Martin killing and lynchings, includes sequences portraying Wilkerson’s own interactions with family as well as friends like her editor (Blair Underwood).  But it too adds other intimate scenes, like one in which an acquaintance named Miss Hale (Audra McDonald) relates the impact an encounter with a hostile school principal who could not accept that “Miss” was actually her name had on her, and a reenactment of a devastating episode that actually occurred in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1951: Al Bright (Lennox Sims), the only Black member of a champion Little League squad brought to a local pool for a post-game celebration, was forbidden to swim with his teammates because of the park’s segregationist policies. The sad compromise, dramatized as it’s related by one of the boy’s surviving teammates (Allan Wilayto) to Wilkerson, is positively heartbreaking. 

The treatment does not always avoid heavy-handedness: If Lincoln spoke of a house divided, for example, here the deterioration of Wilkerson’s home, which she prepares to sell after Brett’s death, is employed as a metaphor for the structural weaknesses of a society undermined by racism when Wilkerson converses with a plumber (Nick Offerman) wearing a MAGA hat.  But one is willing to overlook such overreach when the film is so clearly heartfelt.  And DuVernay does include possible objections to Wilkerson’s overarching idea—in the sequence set in Germany, for instance, a woman named Sabine (Connie Nielsen) points out that the analogy the author is crafting fails because slavery involved subjugation for economic motives, while the Nazi Final Solution was aimed at extermination, very different motivations—an observation perhaps too quickly dismissed here.   

One can argue that DuVernay tries to cram too much into the picture, and note that while perfectly competent from a visual perspective, the craft contributions—production design (Ina Mayhew), costumes (Dominique Dawson) and cinematography (Matthew J. Lloyd)–are more adequate than exceptional.  Spencer Averick’s editing can’t always avoid some jarring transitions, and Kris Bowers’ score isn’t particularly memorable.

But while “Origin” is in some respects an ungainly film, even if you question Wilkerson’s conclusions, it, like her book, encourages you to ponder them, and to appreciate the commitment that the author brought to her work.