Venice 2023: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Film Barely Scratches the Surface

by Alex Billington
September 9, 2023

Origin Review

Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” I had such high hopes for this film. Going in to the very first press screening of Ava DuVernay’s film Origin at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, I wanted it to be a masterpiece, I wanted it to have the potential to change the world. I had a good feeling it might have that kind of real power. Alas, it is a let down… It’s not that isn’t a beautiful, soulful film made by a superbly talented filmmaker. It’s that there isn’t much being said. It’s just… so painfully surface-level and basic. It’s frustrating in how the blatantly obvious ideas are just repeated over and over. I honestly hate to say it, because it’s such a wonderfully made film, and it’s trying to be important, but after a while it gets so tedious and repetitive all of its real power fades away. I do still hope it has a great impact on some viewers.

Origin is filmmaker / writer / producer Ava DuVernay’s fifth narrative feature, following I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma, and A Wrinkle in Time; along with the doc 13th. She has been making TV series over the past few years, telling important stories with “When They See Us”, “Queen Sugar”, and “Colin in Black & White”. Origin is an adaptation of the bestselling, highly acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. It’s not really a direct adaptation, per se – DuVernay reworks the film into a story about Isabel writing the book. Aunjanue Ellis stars as Isabel; we follow her on a journey at a pivotal moment in her life as she travels to Germany and India to do research. Coming off of her previous (and very first book) which won her a Pulitzer Prize, she isn’t quite sure what to do next, and various publishers want her to write articles for them, but after a few major incidents in life she decides to go on this voyage for this book. However, the film also is an adaptation in that it takes the ideas from the book and brings them to the screen, visualizing the stories & connections between three castes around the world: America’s racism, Nazis hate of / murder of Jewish people, India’s ongoing social caste.

Unfortunately that is all there is to this film. With a running time of over two hours, the film stretches this concept way, way too thin – repeating the “everyone-already-know-this” stories of Germany and India and America without any meaningful analytical attempt at understanding them. It’s a story about Isabel figuring out how to reject racism as the catch-all issue to discover the bigger picture of hate worldwide (meaning it goes beyond just racism) instead focusing on “caste” as the key to understanding oppression. Yes, America and Germany and India are great examples of subjugation, and they are connected as references for caste and how humanity forcefully divides itself so that one can rule over the other. However, the film never digs any deeper than this. Once setting up these connections, DuVernay could’ve used this to make an incredible leap into showing many of the problems around the world and how all of it is connected. There’s no mention of Indigenous people, or Native Americans, or anyone other oppressed groups. There’s barely one mention of Palestine in a quick sentence. There are so many other oppressed people that really could’ve had a chance to be linked to this “bigger picture” but they’re entirely ignored. One could say, this is not the film for all of this, but I disagree – it is exactly the time and place and moment to go this far and make this connection.

Ultimately, DuVernay’s film is an elementary school lesson in history and humanity. When it should’ve been a university course, instead it is teaching us what we all know: Nazi Germany was bad, they burned books, they didn’t like others, they killed many Jews and used America’s racist laws as a legislation framework for doing this; India has a horrible caste system, it is still prevalent today after thousands of years, they can’t get rid of it no matter how hard they try; America is racist, Black people have always been treated poorly, White Americans have never been doing enough to prevent racism and address its awful past. Yes, and…?? There’s even a conversation in the film where Isabel’s mom her stops her in a conversation and says “please, say that again in English” even though what she had just explain was already entirely understandable and basic to begin with. That is essentially how the whole film feels… I appreciate the documentary style to it, where many prominent and important people are interviewed and provide their knowledge. I just wanted to see this get into so much more, and open the doors to showing how horribly divided most of the world is. It also fails in its conclusion by never offering a single hint of a answer to the most important questions of all: how do we stop this, what more can we do, what is necessary, how do we dismantle caste and end racism??

Despite my complaints, I still think Origin is a beautiful film. It is profoundly moving. Bolstered by stirring performances, authentic emotions, the wondrous humanity she captures – it’s all so lovely. Jon Bernthal stars as Isabel’s husband, but he’s barely in the film, and we never get to spend enough time with him to feel their connection despite his love being such a powerful force for her. Aunjanue Ellis is terrific in the lead role as Isabel, but the film skips around too much to allow her to dazzle us with her might. There’s a handful of good performances from other cast members who show up in a quick scene or two then disappear. The cinematography by DP Matthew J. Lloyd is not excessively showy or spectacular, it’s more grounded and inviting, bringing us closer to these stories and these people. The score by Kris Bowers is the highlight of the film, so emotional and dreamy and moving in its own ways. But it also feels like something that is added to fill in the gaps in the few times where the rest of the film lacks depth . Overall, Origin really could’ve been something much more remarkable – stopping short of achieve that cinematic greatness that it was aiming for. I haven’t read the book, but it seems like it’s worth picking up to actually dig deeper into all these ideas.

Alex’s Venice 2023 Rating: 6 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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