Origin: A Mosaic of Moments

Origin, written and directed by Ava DuVernay, is based on the book Caste: The Origin of our Discontents, and on the life of its author, Isabel Wilkerson.

After the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Isabel Wilkerson, is prompted by a colleague to write a piece about his death. She is hesitant at first, but questions she has regarding his murder – and the subsequent discourse attached to it – lead her into research around caste in various parts (and times) of the world. Simultaneously, Isabel faces a seemingly never-ending wave of grief, losing three of the closest people to her within a few years of each other.

The cast for this movie is STUNNING. Aunjanue Ellis, Niecy Nash-Betts, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Blair Underwood, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Jasmine Cephas Jones, AND Victoria Pedretti in one film?! Nah, stunning. (There are so many more amazing actors in this film, but those are the people that turned me into that ‘Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen’ meme when they popped up).

To me, Origin felt like a mosaic. It’s a biopic that sometimes feels like a documentary with different locations, time periods and characters who never meet mixed into the one story. Truthfully, the ‘one story’ is a story of many people, which I found to work really well, especially because of the point of Isabel’s research. Isabel travels to Germany and India as she tries to understand how discrimination based on caste in these countries are connected to each other and to ‘racist’ discrimination in America. (Isabel actually argues that this discrimination based on caste is also what happens in America and is a more accurate description than ‘racism’.) Being in these countries and hearing from people who are native to them highlights the interconnectedness Isabel argues in the film and – I’m presuming because I haven’t read it – in her book. The film brings the research Isabel conducts to life, making the real issues that were experienced, whether in Nazi Germany or in the Jim Crow south, more tangible for us as an audience. In this way, Origin is a true film adaptation of Caste. It’s not just about Isabel, it’s presenting her research and thoughts to people who maybe haven’t read her book.

But the film is also about Isabel Wilkerson.

The grief she carries weighs heavy on her even as she works, (a weight so gracefully carried by Aunjanue Ellis and beautifully visually expressed by DuVernay) and is even, in some cases, what inspires her to keep on in her work. The film shows the responsibility that comes with being a part of something you know will be good for people other than yourself, while navigating personal issues that knock you down. I think it would have been perfectly understandable for Isabel to take a break from her work considering all she was going through. Yet, and with the support of her family, she sees her book through to publication.

We sometimes get moments in life that make us want to throw in the towel, moments that make us question if anything we’re doing is even worth it. But then, we are also often engaged in activities that are about more than just us, whether that’s at work, with loved ones, or whether we have a story that could change the world. I find it fascinating that humans can go through deep sadness and are still able to somehow find peace, joy, or meaning, even if the sadness never completely goes away. Origin inspires me because of this. Not in an aspirational way where it’s telling us to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps (which I know I sometimes need), but in that it sits with us in the dark and gently guides us towards the light, as Isabel herself finds it.

*Side note, Origin’s entry for best original song at the Oscars, ‘I AM’, by Stan Walker is so incredibly beautiful, and has been playing on repeat since I saw this film. Go check it out. You’re welcome.

Origin is available in theatres on Friday, January 19th, 2024.

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