Film

Origin review – a genuine, often unsettling cinema outlier

Bringing the story of Isabel Wilkerson, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, to the big screen

Image: Atsushi-Nishijima_Courtesy-NEON

How do you adapt a popular non-fiction book for the big screen? In beefy biopics like Oppenheimer - based on the critically lauded doorstop American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer – the filmmakers are usually gifted a literal character arc. 

For more abstract best-sellers – like the stat-filled baseball analysis Moneyball or the jargon-heavy subprime mortgage investigation The Big Short, both adapted into award-winning movies – it feels like screenwriters try and find a narrative thread or two to latch onto, then just simplify and streamline the rest of the material to make it digestible. 

With her latest film Origin, Ava DuVernay (director of the Oscar-winning civil rights drama Selma and the excellent Netflix miscarriage of justice mini-series When They See Us) has taken a notably different approach. It is inspired by Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the 2020 bestseller by Isabel Wilkerson, a veteran reporter and essayist who in 1994 became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. 

In her book Wilkerson seeks to reframe the discussion of race and racism in the US by examining historical hierarchies on a global and historical scale. The key element is power: those who have it, and how they aggressively keep hold of it by creating societal divisions and powerful social stigma.  

It is an elegantly written and persuasively argued book full of Wilkerson’s contemporary reportage and illuminating case studies from the past, some of which are dramatised for the film.  

But Origin is also a biopic of Wilkerson herself, played with extraordinary commitment by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, (who was Oscar-nominated in 2022 for her role opposite Will Smith in tennis biopic King Richard as watchful mother Oracene Williams). As well as outlining the key arguments of the book, 
Origin seeks to explore the extraordinarily stressful personal circumstances that compelled Wilkerson to pursue writing it. 

This hybrid approach asks for more than usual from an audience. But to smooth the narrative leaps between her two-pronged narrative, DuVernay makes no visual distinction between what is happening in Wilkerson’s life and what is a reconstruction.  

The flashbacks to Germany marching toward fascism in the 1930s, historical lynchings in the Deep South and the early life of Indian untouchable turned social reformer Dr BR Ambedkar are all essentially shot with the same immediacy. It underlines the impression that while many years have passed some things truly remain unchanged. 

Wilkerson can be consumed by her work. “I need to live inside the story,” she says at a swanky 2012 cocktail reception, trying to deter a wolfish commissioning editor looking for a quick opinion piece on the murder of black teen Trayvon Martin.  

So it helps that this dedicated, empathetic writer is surrounded by an easygoing support group, notably her ailing but shrewd mother (Emily Yancy), a winningly supportive husband (Jon Bernthal) and, perhaps most entertainingly of all, her bolshy, straight-talking cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), a valuable
sounding board. 

The warmth of these performances provide some respite from the upsetting case studies, although Wilkerson herself endures a series of personal tragedies that might seem overly melodramatic if they were not actually true. Eventually, though, they inspire her to throw herself into her new project. She visits Germany to examine startling evidence that Nazi lawyers took US Jim Crow segregation laws as a model to persecute Jews. 

She also travels to India, where larger-than-life Dalit academic Dr Suraj Yengde – playing himself – illuminates the caste system that still has a powerful grip on his society. It feels refreshing simply to observe a black writer and intellectual as she juggles her life and work pressures, although when Wilkerson wheels in a whiteboard and begins to literally sketch out the key pillars of her argument late in the film, it does start to become more like a lecture. 

DuVernay was clearly so moved by Wilkerson’s book that she felt compelled to bring it to the screen. In recent interviews, she has been candid about her struggles to get Origin off the ground after original producer Netflix dropped out. “It was made in 37 days on three continents by two black independent producers and no studio,” she told CNN. The result feels like a genuine, often unsettling cinema outlier, pushing against what we think of as normal. That, pleasingly, is entirely in keeping with its central thesis. 

Origin is in cinemas now. Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Mena Massoud on life after Aladdin, confidence and the problem with roles for actors of colour
Mena Massoud
Film

Mena Massoud on life after Aladdin, confidence and the problem with roles for actors of colour

Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'
Civil War, Alex Garland
Film

Civil War director Alex Garland on ChatGPT, 28 Years Later and why Britain is like a 'pet cat'

From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues
Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Zac Efron as the tragic Van Erich wrestling family in The Iron Claw
Film

From The Iron Claw to Opponent: How wrestling films began grappling with real issues

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop
Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Gillian Anderson as Emily Maitlis
Film

Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper and Rufus Sewell on recreating Prince Andrew's car-crash interview in Scoop

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know