- Ava DuVernay
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 21 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
.The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed.
Ava DuVernay’s Origin is an unusal film about oppression in that it is a drama based on a non-fiction book– Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson—combined with incidents in the recent past of Nazi Germany, the dep South, and colonial India. Her script takes into the personal life of author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) and her quest to find the source of the hatretd beind racism. “Racism as the primary language to understand everything is insufficient,” she maintains.
The film begins with a prologue showing a Black teenager hurrying home at night after buying a snack. He is talking on his cellphone with his girlfriened, worriedly complaining about a man following him in his car who appears threatening. The youth is Trayvon Martin, and we know all too well the tragic outcome of that encounter in 2012 with the Hispanic George Zimmerman, self-appointed guardian of the neighborhood.
Isabel Wilkerson, the first Black female journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize, is happily married to a white man, Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal), who is very supportive of her work. She is in the process of helping her ailing mother transition to a nursing home. After one of her lectures she is approached by an ditor to write a piece about the Trayvon Martin murder, but declines at first.
However, she listens to recordings of Zimmerman’s 911 phone calls and ponders his misguided attempt to protect his whte neighborhood, she decides that racism is too simple an idea to explain the killing. Her quest for an answer takes her to Germany where she discovers the Nazis had studied American slavery and Southeren Jim Crow laws. As she searches through Nazi and Holocaust records she comes across the case of August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock), a German shipyard worker allegedly pictured in a famous 1936 photograph where he was the only one in the crowd not giving the siff-armed salute. He had joined the Nazi Party years earlier but had fallen in love with the Jewish Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti). Thus running afoul of the Nazi miscegenation laws.
In conjunction with The Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 we Nazi book burning demonstrations that took place in Berlin’s Bebelplatz in 1933. Black anthropologist Allison Davis (Isha Blaaker) is there with his wife Elizabeth witnessing the barbaric event. They return to the US and go under cover with their white colleagues Burleigh and Mary Gardner in Jim Crow Mississippi, to study the social divisions on both sides of the racial divide. This results in the important book DEEP SOUTH: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class.
A most poignant event is the story of the Black Little Lague player Al Bright whose team in 1951 wins a penannt and is given a free day at a public swimming pool. The Little boy sits outside the fence watching his teammates romping in the cool water. Then the “kind”-hearted staff allow him to float in the water atop an airmattress while warning him not to touch the water with his hands. Everyone else is standing out of the water as the man leads the boy and mattress around the pool. Whar must the las had been thinking and feeling?
During the course of her resarch Isabel’s husband dies suddeny, and not long afterward her mother also passes away. The film suggests that the pain of these losses affected subtly her research. She eventually reaches a conclusion when she spends time in India studying the horrible treatment of the Dalits, the bottom caste once known as “The Untouchables.” We learn of the pioneering work of one of them Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who who managed to become a scholar, growing up in poverty but eventually helping to draft India’s constitution.
We learn a lot about America’s “Original Sin” as well as Germany and India’s afflictions, as well as experience the humanity of a talented Black scholar. Two scenes that will stay long with me: Isabel calls a plumber to fix the flooding in the basement of her mother’s old house. He is wearing a MAGA hat, and they stare at each other. She tries to connect by revealing that her mother has died. He is silent, and she follows up by asking about his. He replies that she died at age 52. Isabel comments that that was not old, and asks about his father. Learning that he is alive, she comments on his good fortune in still having him, but the man gruffly says that he is mean. In the other an old Dalit man is immersed in human excretement—an ultimate example of human degradation?
Like scholar Isabel Wilkerson, filmmaker Ava DuVernay digs deep, each of them in her own way probing like a surgeon to discover the cancer lying bneath a festering wound. This is a film that I wish all Americans would put on their “must see” list.
This review will be in the February issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.