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Dan Webster reviews "Origin"

Film still of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson in Origin (2023).
Origin, ARRAY Filmworks/Neon, 2023.
Film still of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson in Origin (2023).


The question of what makes one group of humans hate another has enthralled, if not confounded, social scientists for generations. And often, particularly in the United States, that hate has been defined in racial terms.

Isabel Wilkerson addressed that very issue in her 2020 nonfiction book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. And her thesis, working from and adding to the ideas conceived by a number of original researchers, is that the way we think about race in the U.S. is not wrong as much as it is incomplete.

Wilkerson’s view is that it’s more accurate to consider the concept of caste, which the dictionary defines as “any rigid system of social distinctions.” It’s caste, she posits, that serves as the underlying framework upon which racist attitudes are expressed.

“Race, in the United States," she wrote, "is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

In her film Origin, writer-director Ava DuVernay focuses both on Wilkerson’s work and, equally, on Wilkerson herself. Origin, then, is a hybrid concoction—a fusion between the personal and the academic.

The personal side follows Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she, having finished writing a best-selling book, searches for a new topic. Secure in her marriage (Jon Bernthal plays her husband), she worries about her mother as the elderly woman moves from the family home to a care facility.

The academic side comes to light when Wilkerson is approached by her editor (played by Blair Underwood). He wants her to write about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old whose shooting in 2012 made headlines and sparked nationwide furor. She is reluctant, until she listens to the 911 recording—and this sets her off on her writing sojourn.

And trigger warning here: not only does DuVarney re-create the incident, but she lets us hear the actual tapes, including young Martin’s haunting screams.

Wilkerson then goes on the road, pondering in Germany the tragedy of the Jews during the years leading up to, and including, World War II—in which those of that faith were targets of extermination. She even learns how the Nazis used the segregation laws of the American South as a model for what they could do to the Jews.

In India, Wilkerson meets with an expert on that country’s social hierarchy, which separates people from Brahmin to Dalit (aka "The Untouchables") despite their all belonging, at least in physical appearance, to the same race.

Writer-director DuVarney—a filmmaker with a torrid social conscience, as her Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary 13th indicates—dramatizes all this, along with the story of the Black couple, Allison and Elizabeth Davis, who worked with a White couple, Burleigh and Mary Gardner, to bravely research and then write the 1941 groundbreaking study of segregation titled Deep South.

And, too, DuVarney tells the story of Al Bright, an 11-year-old Black child who, barred from joining his baseball team in a public swimming pool, is paraded around on a raft—in front of a crowd—with stern instructions not to touch the water—which, presumably, would somehow then be contaminated.

Back to the personal, Wilkerson endures her own series of losses, all of which—imbued by Ellis-Taylor’s compelling performance—adds to the film’s essential emotional power. It is that performance, plus DuVarney’s intense focus on Wilkerson’s message, that makes Origin as persuasive as it is.

But even if it doesn’t persuade you, it’s impossible to ignore the argument that Wilkerson makes. As she wrote in her book: “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded those and who is not.”

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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