Ava DuVernay’s Origin Is a Sensitive Portrait of Writing and Grief

5 minute read

Making a movie about the writing of a book is an almost impossible mandate. How to translate the process—the research, the long, lonely hours of filling screen after screen with prose, the invisible band of self-doubt that can encircle a writer during the toughest times—into terms that work visually on-screen, that draw an audience into a mode of work that’s intensely private? Ava DuVernay pulls it off intelligently with Origin, playing in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which follows journalist Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she brings her 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents from conception to completion.

Simply researching and writing this ambitious book would have been enough. But Wilkerson embarked on it, and finished it, during a time of tremendous personal loss. DuVernay dramatizes Wilkerson’s efforts to push through, devoted to the mission of her book even as she’s rocked by waves of grief. This is a sensitively made picture, one that humanizes the writing process, giving us a sense of the life behind the words on the page; it also lays out the book’s ideas succinctly. DuVernay covers a lot of ground in a short span of time, and Ellis-Taylor's quiet forcefulness keeps the story going.

Read more: 'Racism' Did Not Seem Sufficient.' Author Isabel Wilkerson on the American Caste System

Origin opens with a horror story, detailing the events just before the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Martin is an average, innocent kid who’s just been to the store to pick up some candy; he’s talking to his girlfriend on the phone as he walks down the street in a white neighborhood. This alone—and the fact that he’s wearing a hoodie—is enough to raise suspicion about him; what happened to him is the thing all Black parents in America have to warn their sons about.

An editor from Wilkerson’s former employer, the New York Times, approaches her, wanting her to write a long feature about the murder and its meaning, knowing she’ll be able to parse it better than anyone. But Wilkerson, having recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 account of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, says she’s most interested in writing books, which allow her, she says, to “be in the story. Really inside the story.” And that takes time. She also wants to spend more time with her elderly mother (Emily Yancy), who has just moved into an assisted-living facility. For now, she wants to put any big projects on hold.

But Wilkerson can’t just tuck Martin’s murder away. It weighs on her, and she begins to think about it as part of a much larger pattern. “We call everything racism,” she says at one point. “What does it even mean anymore?” She begins to research the Nazi party’s rise to power in Germany, eventually learning that the party had studied the way Americans had subjugated and dehumanized Black people, using their findings to engineer the extermination of the country’s Jews. And she learns of a scholar from India, B. R. Ambedkar, who, beginning in the 1940s, sought to dismantle the caste system in his country. Ambedkar was born into the caste of people who used to be known as “the untouchables.” In school, he wasn’t allowed to have a desk, because his mere touch would sully it. He couldn’t drink water from the same vessels as his classmates. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to touch the water at all; it had to be poured into his mouth. Wilkerson came to believe that caste—the way those in power exert control over others by creating myths about their inferiority—is a broader and deeper problem than what we commonly call racism.

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This complex and radical idea would become the heart of her book. But even before she can get to work on it in earnest, her husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), dies suddenly; a few months later, she loses her mother, and as she's deep into her research in India, her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), as close as a sister, dies too. DuVernay uses a few simple shots to convey Wilkerson’s sorrow, first over the death of her husband, followed so closely by that of her mother. We see her lying on a bed of dried, dead leaves, in a kind of dream state: first she sees the face of her sleeping husband, and later, the face of her mother, smiling gently. It’s a good visual metaphor for the way grief can feel like a kind of suspended animation, a state from which it’s difficult to emerge.

But Wilkerson does emerge, by getting back to work. The idea isn’t that work can erase grief, but that pushing forward is the only way to survive; there’s no going backward. Ellis-Taylor gives a potent but understated performance. She makes us see the determination behind an undertaking as daunting as the writing of Caste must have been. But she also shows us a human being in crisis, a woman whose sadness hangs about her like an invisible aura. Origin works as a visual summation of Wilkerson’s ideas. But it’s also a movie about a woman striving to bring her ideas to the world, even in the midst of her own personal crisis. The life we plan and hope for is rarely the life we get. Origin is an exhortation to use every heartbeat wisely.

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