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‘Origin’ review: From the unfilmable bestseller ‘Caste,’ Ava DuVernay finds the only possible movie

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
(TNS)

“You can’t be walking around at night, on a white street, and not expect trouble.” Author Isabel Wilkerson’s mother has likely said something like this before, in one of any number of tragic contexts. In this case, George Zimmerman has recently killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for walking, in a hoodie, at night, while Black. And Wilkerson wonders: Is it really on the young man’s shoulders to avoid arousing suspicion, then deadly overreaction, among his fellow American citizens?

Martin’s name is one of many heard in the vital, supple new film “Origin,” and screenwriter-director Ava DuVernay has found a way to turn an adaptation-defying bestseller — Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent “Caste” — into what feels like the only possible film version.

Without sacrificing or exploiting any of Wilkerson’s personal story, “Origin” honors what the author and journalist did in taking on a hugely ambitious research project in the service of her second book. Subtitled “The Origins of Our Discontents,” “Caste” came out in 2020. It wasn’t easy to write, but it reads like a streak — a provocative and elegantly intertwined examination of America’s racial history and structural biases, and their undeniable links to both India’s caste system and Nazi Germany’s murder of 6 million Jews.

The result, on screen, is not like any other how-I-wrote-this biopic, partly because it’s much more than that. DuVernay dramatizes the historical figures in Wilkerson’s “Caste,” through her travels abroad and her family joys and sorrows at home, in constantly surprising ways.

It begins where too many American stories begin: with one more dead Black body on a residential street. The 2012 killing of Martin serves as the sobering prologue to “Origin.” The news story strikes Wilkerson (played with supple authority and great, compressed force by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as worth writing about, though she resists the entreaties of a friend and former New York Times editor (played by Blair Underwood).

Soon enough, grief sends Wilkerson, the former Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, into a heartbreaking new realm of purpose. Wilkerson’s second husband (Jon Bernthal, excellent) dies suddenly, a 15-year-old brain tumor diagnosis cruelly catching up with him. Wilkerson soon suffers another family loss and must pick up pieces everywhere she turns.

Those include the pieces, the notions, for researching an ever-larger idea for a book: one dealing, somehow, with America’s own racial caste structure and its connections to Nazi Germany’s caste society, as well as India’s. With the death of her mother (played with wonderful grace by Emily Yancy) in due course, Wilkerson focuses on work, as best she can, while seeking solace in friends, friends/interview subjects and colleagues around the world, some more supportive of her central thesis than others.

“Origin” struggles a bit to accommodate both DuVernay’s dramatized research, in the form of flashbacks, focused on 1930s Germany, and the Dalit caste of India — the lowest rung, the ones tasked with cleaning latrine waste with their bare hands. But like the book, the film about the making of the book pulls off a near-miracle in shaping a steadily multiplying amount of information and ideas that are not simply information and ideas. Reason: The people come alive in “Origin” and Ellis-Taylor holds the key.

I’d see it again for any number of scenes, notably Audra McDonald as a friend of Wilkerson’s, relaying the riveting story of why her father named her Miss Hale. DuVernay, whose previous work includes first-rate documentaries (“The 13th”), docudramas (“When They See Us”) and biographical portraits of a person and a movement (“Selma”), creates a singular visual leitmotif, in which we see Wilkerson, in a black void, leaves falling all around, communing with her late husband, or with a research subject who dies before she has a chance to hear his own story of racial caste prejudice involving a whites-only swimming pool and a Little League team that didn’t bother with caste and racial designations.

To say “Origin” is destined for countless classroom screenings risks making it sound medicinal or earnestly educational. It is, I suppose, educational; it’s also vibrant and adroit and searching as human drama. It’s one woman’s story. And like the book that inspired it, DuVernay’s adaptation makes us see what Wilkerson saw, all around the world we make for ourselves. And then remake. Or else.

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‘ORIGIN’

3.5 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving racism, violence, some disturbing images, language and smoking)

Running time: 2:21

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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