Origin: Ava DuVerney’s book biopic presents an ambitious study of caste systems

Ava DuVerney’s dramatisation of Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling non-fiction book about the enduring existence of caste systems is thought-provoking, but the film’s crowded template eventually becomes unwieldy.

Jon Bernthal as Brett Hamilton and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson in Origin (2024)

Ava DuVernay’s films are illuminated by their intense explorations of social injustice. Committed to putting Black history and the horrors of systemic racism on screen, she forged charismatic drama from the civil rights struggles in Selma (2014) and created a coruscating documentary analysis of how Black male incarceration feeds the US detention industry in 13th (2016). So Origin, which uses a dramatic frame to meld global historical atrocities with complex social theory, is an ambitious creative leap for DuVernay and at the same time, a natural progression. 

Adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a hefty factual tome exploring the enduring existence of caste systems, it unrolls the book on screen as a personal journey of discoveries for ­Wilkerson (deftly played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor). When she takes on a commission to write about Trayvon Martin’s killing (the film opens with a chilling dramatisation of his murder and uses the real-life 911 call recordings with startling effectiveness), Wilkerson begins to ­suspect that America’s racist violence is part of a bigger global picture about embedded hierarchies and social ­subjugation, which she becomes eager to uncover.

Urged by her cousin Marion (a punchy Niecy Nash-Betts) to make her dense academic work about “real people, real things”, the film’s investigation weaves in affecting personal historical vignettes from Nazi Germany and the segregation-era South, alongside Wilkerson’s domestic life. Laid in around this to provide context are conversations with German and Indian scholars about the Holocaust and the oppression of Dalit ‘untouchables’. It forms an intriguingly layered structure, which works hard to explore connections between its many threads (such as a horrifying German transcript revealing that the Nazi race laws were directly inspired by the US Jim Crow statutes enforcing Southern-state segregation). 

Cinematographer Matthew Lloyd shoots all the strands in handsome, nicely textured 16mm which gives the film aesthetic unity, utilising frequent close-ups for an intimate feel throughout, aided by Kris Bowers’s lush, violin-filled score. But as the film progresses, this crowded template becomes unwieldy. Potentially gripping subplots involving groundbreaking Black anthropologist Allison Davis working undercover in the Deep South in the 1930s, or the story of Nazi-defying German-Jewish couple August Landmesser and Irma Eckler, are reduced to simple highlights that reflect Wilkerson’s search for a unifying theory. 

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel Wilkerson in Origin (2024)

Grief spurs Wilkerson on after a series of sudden family losses, and Ellis-Taylor is excellent here as a woman sideswiped by sorrow. Her thoughtful performance elevates what could have been a sentimental swerve in the main story (DuVernay’s 2010 drama I Will Follow shows off an equally unvarnished view of bereavement). Whether clinging to Marion in misery, defusing a Maga-hatted plumber’s hostility, or staring down a German academic’s patronising attempt to squash her ‘caste’ theory, Ellis-Taylor’s performance is poignant, yet always powerful. But as the film’s driving force, she’s its only rounded character – in a film this crammed, even her partner Brett (a supportive Jon Bernthal) and her beloved mother are pretty one-note. Origin moulds Wilkerson’s own story, along with the others, until all the drama is pressed into the service of her globe-trotting investigation. By the time Wilkerson is in Mumbai, mourning a family death while getting a crash course on Dalit hero B.R. Ambedkar’s early 20th-century activism against Indian caste discrimination, the film has the faint air of an extra-mural lecture, alongside its more melodramatic notes.

In creating a layer-cake of stories to show Wilkerson’s concept of caste as an immutable social hierarchy, DuVernay provides a host of valuable talking points. Her film will undoubtedly spread Wilkerson’s thought-provoking insights far beyond her book’s readership. But as the thesis finally comes together, the narrative buckles under the weight of her material. A confusing welter of dramatised snapshots of Middle Passage and Holocaust atrocities illustrate the horrific effects of the caste system ‘pillars’ (including endogamy and legalised terror) that Wilkerson lists on a whiteboard. This profusion threatens to obscure the film’s most piercing stories, like that of a Black boy in the 1950s who was towed around a Southern whites-only pool on a lilo but loudly forbidden to even touch the water, while his Little League teammates swam freely. DuVernay shoots this sequence with a tender watchfulness, coupled with a controlled rage that stamps the shameful scene into your memory. 

Origin is chock-full of these compelling moments, but as a drama its audacious reach exceeds its grasp. It makes you long for the documentary series that would have given Caste room to explore its fascinating dives into global history, and our shared humanity, at length. 

 ► Origin is in UK cinemas from 8 March.