Ava DuVernay's "impossible" adaptation of the academic text is profoundly moving
Adapting an academic dissertation on the origin and roots of racism into a dramatic film can feel like quite the impossible task. Yet Ava DuVernay has set out to achieve this translation in one of the most ambitious page-to-screen adaptations.
Origin (2023) is loosely adapted from Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: the Origins of Our Discontent,” published in 2020. The film spins the adaptation into following Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as a character, as she navigates her own personal life struggles. Wilkerson is prodded by the infamous killing of Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost) in 2012 to seek an answer to why division amongst societal groups is so entrenched. This leads her to travel the world and investigate other cultures and their caste systems, leading her to write the titular book.
DuVernay takes a big risk putting Wilkerson at the center of the story, however, this allows for the academic text to be translated through a more personal lens. The real Wilkerson had a harrowing journey when writing this book, losing loved ones and traveling the world in search of an answer. This gimmick of traveling in search for answers after loss is an overdone trope, with films such as Eat, Pray, Love (2010) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), being among the tackiest. However, Origin seeks to use this cinematic trope to disguise its analysis of a universal caste system. Even in the generic beats of the film, DuVernay’s masterful direction elevates and brings authenticity to these sequences. The love story between Wilkerson and her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) is quietly wrought, yet effectively lays the foundations for the emotional journey that Wilkerson goes on. Similarly, DuVernay’s anchoring of her protagonist with her fun-to-do Cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) sneaks up as the central love story in the film.
DuVernay’s use of editing is especially key in delivering her complex and disparate story. She chooses to guide her narrative through an emotional roadmap rather than a chronological or thematic one, but this helps deliver the sentimental importance at the heart of Wilkerson’s thesis. This also means a tireless effort of cutting between the past and present, and frequently having Inception (2010)-like histories within histories. We seamlessly jump between Trayvon Martin’s killing, to Nazi Germany book burnings, to the Dalit system in India, with organic ease. This can lose viewers at certain points, as they forget the thread of a certain argument, but arguably this sense of wandering fits well with the character of Wilkerson searching for answers. Regardless, DuVernay’s conclusion brings together all the strings, to deliver a moving and incredibly thought-provoking finale.
DuVernay brings onboard one of the least hired, but most talented actresses of today to be her guide in Origin. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is indomitable as Wilkerson, delivering complex speeches on the history of India or the dehumanizing tactics used to build castes into our society with ease. She also anchors the emotional moments and personal journey of her character with a restraint that showcases the pain that the character undergoes, without needing to be exaggerated in her acting. The cast is rounded out with familiar faces in DuVernay’s work, with Nash and Bernthal being special standouts for anchoring scenes in the little screentime they have.
In the end, Origin is an impossible adaptation of an academic text that is pulled off with profound effectiveness. The way the emotional journey of Wilkerson’s character is weaved into the intellectual questions posed regarding race, class, and hate, helps deliver a personal and mind-expanding story.