“Origin” is inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 nonfiction book about oppression, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Writer-director Ava Duvernay does not do a documentary-style adaptation like Roger Ross Williams’s 2023 film “Stamped from the Beginning,” which was based on Ibram X. Kendi’s book about racism.
Instead, this film makes an ambitious attempt to imagine Wilkerson’s creative process as she is researching and writing her book. DuVernay takes big storytelling chances, sprinkling flashbacks, re-creations of events, and hints of surrealism throughout this gorgeous-looking film. Not everything works — conversations that bring up thorny disagreements about race and class often feel protracted — but, as a whole, “Origin” is still fascinating to behold.
As Wilkerson, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is DuVernay’s biggest ally in realizing her vision. It’s unfortunate she was overlooked during awards season. The Oscar-nominated actress (2021’s “King Richard”) is able to silently convey the joys of discovering something new. We can see her formulating thoughts in her head and working through ideas, actions that are difficult to depict onscreen.
In addition, Ellis-Taylor excels in the family scenes that serve as the film’s jumping-off point. She and Jon Bernthal, who plays Wilkerson’s husband, Brett, have a tender romantic chemistry in their few scenes together. The raucous, easygoing banter between Ellis-Taylor and Niecy Nash-Betts, who plays Wilkerson’s cousin Marion, is also refreshing and feels true to life.
DuVernay wisely anchors “Origin” with Wilkerson’s personal relationships; the tragic loss of those she loves propels the author to immerse herself in the research that will inspire her book. In the first third of the film, Wilkerson loses Brett and her mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy), back to back. Her grief over the loss of both emotional pillars leaves her rudderless.
Before their deaths, Ruby and Brett discuss the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The film opens with a reenactment of that tragedy, the inciting event that inspires Wilkerson’s concept of caste being the real reason for oppression rather than racism. Ruby asks why Martin didn’t explain his presence in Zimmerman’s neighborhood before he was shot. Wilkerson questions why a Latino man would go out of his way to defend a white neighborhood.
“You can’t be walking around at night on a white street and not expect trouble,” Ruby explains. “That’s intimidating to most whites.”
“But you can’t live your life based on what’s intimidating to people,” Brett tells her. Ruby disagrees. “Sure you can, sweetie,” she says.
I questioned whether DuVernay should have staged Martin’s killing, much like I wondered about her decision to use the actual videos of Black people like Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and others being shot by police in her superior, 2016 documentary “13th.” Though this film’s effective last scene provides a justification of sorts, the reenactment still bothered me.
“Origin” hits its stride once Wilkerson becomes immersed in her research. We follow her progress through scenes crafted from the books she’s reading. One narrative is based on the 1941 book “Deep South.” It features two of the book’s authors, Allison Davis (Isha Blaaker) and Burleigh Gardner (Matthew Zuk), each members of two real-life Harvard anthropologist couples, one white and one Black, who relocate to the Jim Crow South to document what it’s like to live in a segregated area.
Other scenes feature familiar actors playing people who either disagree with Wilkerson’s caste theories or her political beliefs. Connie Nielsen and Nick Offerman have cameos as, respectively, a German woman who doesn’t think the reasons for the Holocaust and slavery are based on caste, and a MAGA-hat-wearing plumber hired to fix a leak in Wilkerson’s basement. These scenes vary in success, but I understand why DuVernay included them — they’re conversation starters.
Wilkerson also travels to India so “Origin” can tell the story of the human rights abuses suffered by the Dalits, the lowest members in the country’s caste system. Their experiences are juxtaposed with scenes of Africans suffering the horrors of being trapped in ships during the Middle Passage. While these scenes are very effective, I wished the film had been longer so more time could be spent fleshing out all the connections.
Minor complaints aside, I remained fully engaged with the film, especially in the brief moments when it untethers from reality to show Wilkerson’s emotional state of mind. For example, when she hears a firsthand account about the only Black member of a little league baseball team being denied access to a segregated swimming pool, we see Wilkerson walking into a flashback to comfort the boy.
I enjoy movies about process; that is, watching the often mundane steps of people doing their jobs. “Origin” does a very good job visualizing the act of researching and writing. It also stoked my anger regarding the current state of race relations in America and the cruel treatment of the downtrodden worldwide. It’s not a fun time at the movies, but it’s an informative and worthy one.
Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, based on the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Niecy Nash-Betts, Jon Bernthal, Emily Yancy, Isha Blaaker, Connie Nielsen, Nick Offerman. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, suburbs. 141 minutes. PG-13 (violence, images of slavery and lynchings)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.