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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob


March 29, 2024
Flicks with The Film Snob
Flicks with The Film Snob

Isabel Wilkerson wrote a book, published in 2020, called “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It argues that the core of social injustice is much deeper than racism: it is caste, defined as the creation of “superior” and “inferior” groups, with the former dominating the latter. It’s a complex argument not based on abstract theory, but on research into the historical evidence of caste worldwide. The book has been hailed as a breakthrough in the study of human society, and has inspired much discussion, and some argument.

Among those deeply affected by this work is the film director Ava DuVernay, who decided to make a movie from it. It’s called Origin, and it’s that rare example of a movie about ideas that is also convincing as drama.

Du Vernay has made documentaries before, and she could have taken that approach here, to try to explain the book in a non-fiction format. But she’s also proven to be a skilled director of narrative film, and to bring the book’s message to life, she decided to dramatize the story of how Wilkerson came to write it, using actors and story techniques. It’s a risky strategy, and I admit I was expecting a kind of weak personal framing of what would really amount to a lecture, because I had seen this in other films with similar approaches. But I was happy to be proven wrong.

Origin begins with a tense depiction of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid from Florida gunned down by a neighborhood vigilante while walking through a white neighborhood. This is a brilliant way to start the movie, creating a sense of urgency that doesn’t let up. We then meet Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist elevated to independent status by the great success of her first book. She’s asked by a friend on the New York Times to consider covering this Trayvon Martin case for the paper. She declines, not wishing to do assignment work anymore, but after her friend plays the phone recordings leading up to the killing, she can’t get it out of her mind. How, she wonders, can racism explain why a Latino, a brown skinned man, killed a black kid, Trayvon Martin?

Origin seamlessly weaves together the private and public aspects of the story. Wilkerson, a black woman, is married to a white man, a financial analyst named Brett, played by John Bernthal. Whatever resonance this may have in a film dealing with equality, the fact is that the performances make the relationship intensely believable. The affection and humor they share becomes a thread holding the film together. We also meet Isabel’s mother and her beloved cousin. Losses experienced in this close personal circle result in overwhelming grief. DuVernay proves expert at portraying the process of grief. But the power in all this, and in the film as a whole, I think, is largely due to the lead actress, Aunjaunue Ellis-Taylor, who carries the film with such conviction that I found myself deeply moved.

Wilkerson travels around the world to study the history of social injustice. In India, the idea of caste clarifies her thinking about the sources of oppression. It’s exciting to see a film so engaged by important ideas. Origin unites the depth of human emotion with the passion of intellectual discovery in a quest to understand and thereby free ourselves.

author,   caste,   grief,   History,   race,  


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