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Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Traces a Journalist’s Journey to Discovering Caste at the Root of Our Discontents

Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Traces a Journalist’s Journey to Discovering Caste at the Root of Our Discontents

  • Unveiling the hatred embedded in the threads of human history, the film seeks to answer who made the “Dalits untouchable," who decided that the Jews were a curse, and who decided that the African Americans belonged to an “inferior” race.

It has become a family tradition for me to mark every Martin Luther King Day by reading an important historical fiction and sharing the synopsis with my family. Over the last five years, the books that have garnered my attention are: “Roots, The Invisible Line, From Slavery to Freedom,” and “Call Us What We Carry.”

This year, I picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” The nonfiction book became a bestseller in the election year 2020. On Jan 15, 2024, I found a spot at a seaside restaurant in Sausalito, California, and got quickly engrossed in the words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The sunlight dappled the waters of the San Francisco Bay, and while I was reading the setting sun  cast an orange blush on the white feathers of the seagulls, matching the orange liqueur in the Tequila Sunrise—a tribute to the Rolling Stones’ Tequila and Sunrise tour. I did not realize that so much time had passed. As I drove home that evening, I saw throngs of visitors at the bistros, cafes and ice cream parlors on the main street of this quaint town that came into existence as a shipbuilding community in World War II. I mulled over the book I had read and the importance of not forgetting our shared history because history always repeats itself.

The book prompted me to watch Ava DuVernay’s film “Origin” selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered on September 6, 2023. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin served as a fitting prologue to this powerful film. The sight of an African American boy wearing a hood walking through a white neighborhood, played by Myles Frost, always sends a premonition of fear up my spine. That visual is indelible, as is the powerful imagery of “Origin.” I was struck by Mathew J. Lloyd’s compelling cinematography blending elements of documentary with narrative filmmaking, resulting in an engaging viewing experience. 

Written and directed by DuVernay, the storyline tracks the author Isabel Wilkerson’s (portrayed very evocatively by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), journey at her writing desk in her hometown and in conversations with her editor (Amarie Selvan played by Blair Underwood), at home with her mother Ruby Wilkerson, played by Emily Yancy, who can see the image of children jumping with glee in a swimming pool, with her supportive husband Brett Hamilton enacted by Jon Bernthal who is always ready with a helping hand: encouraging her, retrieving her car keys, her boarding pass, pasta. 

‘Origin’ filming in New Delhi.

We meet Wilkerson’s cousin Marion Wilkerson, played by Niecy Nash-Betts, who encourages the author to “simplify her scholastic theories of race and caste and spread the word” in a candid conversation at a cook-out, unraveling the hidden trauma in another African American woman Audra McDonald, who was named: “Miss” Hale by her father. 

Wilkerson  travels to Germany visiting the Holocaust memorials with flashbacks of books being burnt at crossroads, and Jews pushed into concentration camps. Nazis marching down the streets with cries and salutes of ‘Heil Hitler.” Of African Americans being chained into slavery, their women raped and thirteen generations forced into slavery, followed by 100 years of segregation under Jim Crow. 

And then, it’s onward to  India, at the invitation of Dr. Suraj Yengde, one of the country’s leading scholars and public intellectuals, who is a Dalit Ph.D. holder from an African university and a visiting scholar at Harvard. Wilkerson finds herself in the busy streets of ‘what looks like Delhi,” where Ambedkar’s statue is in a cage to prevent the public from defacing the image.

Before delving into her research, very much like any other American tourist, Wilkerson stops to buy a scarf for 150 rupees for her cousin after her friends haggle with the shopkeeper. Interesting interjection here?! Is this not discriminatory behavior against the poor street vendor? But the frame quickly shifts to trace the journey of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, as an “untouchable child” who sat in his classroom on the floor away from the other students but persevered to do two doctorates in Economics at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Later Babasaheb Ambedkar became an Indian jurist, social reformer, and political leader who headed the committee to draft the constitution of India. 

Wilkerson shines light on the ‘Dalits’ who are still forced to clean latrines with bare hands and have to carry a broom tied to their waists because even their shadows are impure. Who made the “Dalits untouchable”? Who decided that the Jews were a curse? Who decided that the African Americans belonged to an “inferior” race and could be lynched? They all show more than they tell. The editing is superb, weaving together stories from the 20th century American South, Germany, and India with seamless precision. Wilkerson had to go to India to discover that Martin Luther King Junior visited India in February 1959. While Wilkerson draws parallels between MLK and B.R. Ambedkar, she does not mention how MLK drew heavily from Gandhi’s idea of nonviolence for his social activism.

The narrative takes a unique approach by showcasing Wilkerson’s writing process on screen, offering an intimate look at her life. As she grapples with personal tragedy, Wilkerson embarks on a global investigation to explore the roots of racism, spanning continents and years. The film seamlessly blends narrative storytelling with documentary elements, effectively delivering Wilkerson’s thesis and research through recordings and reenactments. 

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DuVernay’s directorial prowess ensures that even complex topics are presented with clarity and emotional resonance. The author Isabel Wilkerson, portrayed very evocatively by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who seems like an everyday educated African American woman, could easily be my colleague at the hospital, a fellow poet at my poetry class, or my banker who helps set up my bank account. But in this film, she finds connections in words, themes, stories, shared anguish, the burden of shame shared by communities across the globe and presents a story that transcends traditional boundaries. 

Each actor breathes life into their characters in this well-researched documentary. “Origin” goes beyond being a mere academic exercise; it delves into the humanity (or lack thereof) inherent in historical situations. DuVernay crafts emotionally powerful sequences, particularly towards the end, where Wilkerson delivers a monologue on the process of dehumanization. The film resonates on a profound, global level, but it encounters stumbling blocks in the portrayal of Wilkerson’s painful losses in brief snippets and flashbacks. Although Ellis-Taylor’s performance is exceptional, I would have liked to see more about her personal tragedy, the people she is mourning “who she cannot see but they can see her and envelop her.”

“Origin” is a pivotal film that challenges viewers to confront the covert and overt hatred against “certain” groups in our society. Wilkerson warns that if we try to ignore their presence and avert our eyes away from the “cruel dehumanization,” society will continue to pick and compartmentalize people to benefit “the select few.” The film ends on an optimistic note celebrating the resilience of the human spirit. “Origin” is poised to make a lasting impact. DuVernay’s masterful storytelling, coupled with outstanding performances and a compelling premise, positions “Origin” as a must-watch film. “Origin” is set for a wide release on January 19, 2024.

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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