Superb “Origin” Mines The Earth, Social Order And Your Soul

Omar Moore
5 min readJan 26, 2024

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay hits all the marks in her best film ever and one of the very best films of 2023


By Omar Moore
January 26, 2024

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Ava DuVernay’s excellent film drama “Origin”. (Photo: Neon)

The trees, the night, the leaves — nature’s order witnesses the disordered order of the unnatural, tragic and hopeful right from the start in Ava DuVernay’s sensational and deeply impactful “Origin”, a staggering cinematic achievement which opens wide only in theatres across the U.S. today.

Isabel Wilkerson’s must-read Pulitzer Prize-winning book Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents is adapted to fine effect by Ms. DuVernay, who was repeatedly told that the book was “unadaptable”. To the contrary “Origin” is one of the best and most uniquely constructed films ever made — and that’s a good thing.

Also a good thing is the brilliant acting of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who marvelously portrays Wilkerson onscreen, exploring the author’s thesis that the world in which we live is structured and ordered by caste, not dictated by race. While both are social constructs borne of the need to control people in the service of power, the systemic hierarchy of one group dominating another endures most powerfully through caste — a revelation that may knock some viewers off balance. Ms. DuVernay, it must be emphasized, is not arguing that racism or anti-Semitism doesn’t factor in to the Black or Jewish experience or that it is irrelevant — she is instead advocating fervently for freedom in its most authentic sense, freedom from the deadly trappings that categorization of human beings has wrought on so many people across the globe from time immemorial.

In a film of so many compelling, sometimes painful (re-enactments that look and feel like documentary or docudrama; Matthew J. Lloyd’s grainy and earthy cinematography sumptuously undergirds this film’s texture) and thought-provoking scenes, one involves a conversation between Wilkerson and her cousin played so wonderfully by Niecy Nash-Betts, who functions as this serious and earnest film’s tension release valve. It is an exchange, lasting about four minutes, that demands your attention and your heart. Each moment of it nourished me in its presentation, visual style and instruction — and that’s a tribute to Ms. DuVernay’s excellence as a visionary filmmaker.

What a refreshing thing to witness — Black women engaging in rich, palpable conversation (which of course we know Black women do but rarely see on the big screen) was one of the many highlights of “Origin”. We are treated also — at the risk of the sexism contained in the next words here — to lingering moments of Black women walking off in the distance. Movement, positioning and role-playing (not that kind) is such an important theme in “Origin”.

Ms. Ellis-Taylor deftly and beautifully approaches her task as Wilkerson and succeeds as an intrepid, loving, caring, vulnerable intellectual, writer and journalist undergoing her own journey and adversity. What Ms. Ellis-Taylor does so well is ordinarily a tricky acting task in a film that could have been a daunting, sprawling mess in another director’s hands but in Ms. DuVernay’s assured hands is a terrifically nuanced, layered and seamless work of art and compassion. Ms. Ellis-Taylor is an absolute tower and majestic presence and the film’s heart, soul and conscience. Her leadership and acting here is so thorough, present and transformative and Ms. DuVernay’s direction and authorship precise and profound.

There are many additional strengths of “Origin”. One is in its potency. There are acutely astonishing moments in the daily interactions and conversations between human beings that shake and defy description. The act of being humane, in a film that takes the time to show us humanity in a spectrum of humane to inhumane, shows us “Origin”’s unyielding empathetic heartbeat. In the moments that don’t end well between human beings in “Origin”, how are those moments guided or informed? By caste, hate, racism or all of the above? Are any of your thoughts guided in part by caste or any of the isms borne of it? There is a nature vs. societal nurture that pulses throughout “Origin” and scenes that resonate long after it ends. Ms. DuVernay wants you to talk about your feelings and do something positive and uplifting to change the world you live in.

“Origin” is a bold, unique, weighty and challenging film, one that challenges and defies your expectations, assumptions and innermost feelings about how and which kinds of human beings should interact with each other. Each of us has these feelings, thoughts and visceral reactions to who we see together and who we don’t. When you see people and feel what you feel about them, are your feelings representing the best aspect of who you are, or the worst?

“Origin” is a meaningful, intimate cinematic experience that has vast scope as it crosses continents for more context, meaning and an even bigger picture of connection and solidarity. More than anything, “Origin” is about journeys in life — life as it is lived and life as it could or should be lived — and the stories of those lives. Some of those stories are triumphant, some heartbreaking.

Ultimately, for all its rigor, absorption and intensity, “Origin” is a rich, indelible and uplifting experience, inspiring and daring us to dream bigger and be far better than we presently are as a species and planet. Throughout this impactful cinematic poetry are strong appeals to education, research and critical thinking, each a spellbinding and welcome sight in their clarity, sincerity, passion and above all, their mere presence in a feature film, especially in the A.I. world of 2024.

“Origin” isn’t a story about caste, it is a journey to the center of one woman’s soul and in turn, our own. In ways metaphoric and literal, in “Origin” the earth’s soil is mined, the leaves fallen and the trees rooted and replanted as people fall, rise, love and live.

More than any of her previous films, Ms. DuVernay’s “Origin” holds you, embraces you, appeals to your better angels, caresses you and inspires you to think differently and be more open and humane. Films like that, executed as very well as this one is, do not come around very often.

Running time: two hours and 21 minutes. Rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association.

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