Examining non-fictional source material through its process of creation is always a fascinating endeavour. Ava DuVernay has adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents with the title Origin. There is a fitting duality in the word ‘origin’ referencing the book’s study of racial equality in America being rooted in the caste system. It can also refer to Wilkerson’s (played here by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) own process in formulating her connections, research and arguments to interrogate her thesis that the genesis of racism through the caste system interconnects demographics all around the world.
The challenge therein lies in taking such complex source material and translating it into a way that befits the medium of cinema. DuVernay takes time before we get into the investigation to acquaint us with Wilkerson’s personal life. These scenes place emphasis on some humorous interactions and tender moments between Wilkerson and her mother (Emily Yancy), husband (Jon Bernthal) and cousin (Niecy Nash-Betts), where they engage in small talk and serious discussions alike, underlied with tensions as Wilkerson struggles with indecision and uncertainty over her direction in life. Somewhat less successful are glimpses of Wilkerson’s professional life with her having discussions with her publishers. The set up for Wilkerson’s decision to start investigating caste systems are undercut by some clunky dialogue. There’s also some odd distracting cameos that don’t serve any clear purpose (Nick Offerman’s distracting scene as a MAGA plumber feels oddly shoehorned in).