“You don’t expect trouble when you’re walking around a white street at night.” Writer Isabel Wilkerson’s mother had probably said something like this before, in one of the tragic contexts. In this case, George Zimmerman recently killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin while walking in the black night wearing a hoodie. And Wilkerson wonders: Is it really on the young man’s shoulders to avoid arousing suspicion and subsequent deadly overreaction among American citizens?
Martin’s name is one of many heard in the vital, resilient new movie “Origin,” and writer-director Ava DuVernay is hoping to turn a bestseller that defies adaptations — Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent “Caste” into the only thing possible. He found a way. movie version.
Without sacrificing or exploiting any of Wilkerson’s personal story, “Origin” honors what the author and journalist did in undertaking a hugely ambitious research project for his second book. Subtitled “The Origins of Our Discontents” “Kast” was released in 2020. It wasn’t easy to write, but it reads like a line; A provocative and elegantly intertwined examination of America’s racial history and structural prejudices and their undeniable ties to both India’s caste system and Nazi Germany’s murder of six million Jews.
The result on screen is unlike any other film I’ve written about how I wrote this biography, in part because it’s so much more than that. DuVernay dramatizes the historical figures in Wilkerson’s “Caste” in consistently surprising ways through her travels abroad and the joys and sorrows of her family back home.
It begins where so many American stories begin: with another black body on a residential street. Martin’s murder in 2012 serves as a sobering prologue to “Origin.” The news story finds Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor with her flexible authority and great, compressed strength) worth writing about, but Wilkerson resists the entreaties of a friend and former New York Times editor (played by Blair Underwood).
Soon grief sends Wilkerson, the former Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, into a harrowing new field of purpose. Wilkerson’s second husband (Jon Bernthal, excellent) dies suddenly, the diagnosis of a brain tumor at age 15 cruelly catching up to her. Wilkerson soon loses another family and is forced to pick up the pieces wherever he turns.
These contain pieces and concepts intended to explore an increasingly larger idea for a book: a book that is somehow about America’s own racial caste structure and its connections to the caste society of India as well as Nazi Germany. In due course, with the death of his mother (played with regal grace by Emily Yancy), Wilkerson concentrates on his work as best he can, while also seeking solace in his friends, his companions/interview subjects, and his colleagues around the world, those who are more supportive of him. thesis more central than the others.
“Origin” struggles a bit to accommodate both DuVernay’s dramatized exploration of flashbacks focusing on 1930s Germany and the Dalit caste in India (those at the bottom rung, tasked with cleaning up toilet waste with their bare hands). But like the book, the film about its making accomplishes a near-miracle in shaping a growing body of information and ideas that are not just information and ideas. Reason: In “Origin,” people come to life and Ellis-Taylor holds the key.
I would see this again in many scenes; especially Audra McDonald, as a friend of Wilkerson’s, delivering the riveting story of why her father named her Miss Hale. DuVernay, whose previous work includes top-notch documentaries (“The 13th”), docudramas (“When They See Us”), and biographical portraits of a person and a movement (“Selma”), creates a unique visual leitmotif. See Wilkerson in a pitch black void, with leaves falling everywhere, communicating with a research subject who died before she had a chance to hear her late husband or her own story of racial caste prejudice about a whites-only swimming pool and a small children’s home. A league team that does not bother with caste and racial definitions.
To say that “Origin” is intended for countless classroom displays risks making it sound medical or seriously educational. I think it’s educational; it is also lively, resourceful and probing as human drama. This is a woman’s story. And like the book that inspired it, DuVernay’s adaptation allows us to see what Wilkerson saw, the things we create for ourselves around the world. And then do it again. Or else.
What to Watch?
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“Origin” – 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material containing racism, violence, some disturbing images, language, and smoking)
Running time: 2:21
How to watch: Premieres in limited theaters January 19
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.