17 Apr 2024

At the Movies - Origin

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 17 April 2024

Origin is a semi-fictionalised adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about racism. It's a serious film with a strong cast and some fresh and intriguing ideas, says Simon Morris.

Origin is the latest in a movie genre that I didn't even realise was a genre until recently.

Certainly creative non-fiction has been a literary form since Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, I suppose. But it's relatively new on screen.

Origin is about how journalist Isabel Wilkerson wrote a best-selling book about race. It was initially inspired by a real-life tragedy - the murder of a young black kid, Trayvon Martin, by a self-appointed vigilante.

The question Isabel asks is "Why did a poor Latino kill a black man to protect a rich white neighbourhood?" The kneejerk answer "Racism" didn't seem enough somehow.

While the book she wrote was an academic study - Caste: The Origins of our Discontents - Isabel included personal details within it about her marriage, her family, and a number of tragic deaths that happened while she was writing it.

And so does this film.

I think of previous blends of journalism and memoir - The Big Short, Adaptation, Nomadland and others - that all break the once number one rule. They put the writer into their own book.

Origin is as much autobiography as treatise on racism. It was co-written by director Ava DuVernay, who made the more traditional docudrama Selma a few years ago.

Origin stars Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal as Isabel and her white husband Brett. Among other things it uses their relationship to illustrate key elements of the film.

What is the most important contributor to apparent racism, she asks - colour, class, or something less easily tangible?

What distinguishes Origin is how it attempts to follow Isabel's exploration of her theme with the various things happening in her life as she's doing it. It's an eventful journey - to Germany, to India, to the southern states of the USA.

Though Caste nearly didn't get written at all.

Wilkerson was originally approached by a newspaper editor to write a long piece about the Trayvon Martin case. She passes. She's not that sort of journalist these days, she says, she writes books.

But once she hears the police tapes of the Martin case she changes her mind.

She looks at this case, then at similar but different cases in Nazi Germany, then quite dissimilar cases like one of India's most distinguished statesmen who happened to be 'Dalit' - the lowest of all Indian castes who used to be called "untouchables".

What links these cases?

This is difficult stuff to sell - to publishers, even to her family. But the publishers have faith in her, while her family pushes her to make her point simpler and clearer.

You'd think a film like Origin would also be a hard sell to a practical, profit-minded film company. But Origin is a remarkably well-resourced film.

It looks fantastic, particularly when it flashes back to mass book-burnings in Nazi Germany and to newly independent India. There's a strong cast including Nick Offerman, last seen as the US president in Civil War, here in a small part as a racist plumber in a MAGA hat.

This is a serious film, and it clearly expects us to keep up. But since the real-life book Caste expected the same thing, and went straight to the top of the bestseller list, I think Origin should expect no less either.

I have to say I wasn't convinced the personal soap opera elements were completely necessary - the film is nearly two and a half hours long now. But the ideas in Origin are undeniably fresh and intriguing.

Race is such a taboo subject these days but a regular opening-up of that conversation can't be a bad thing.

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