A Biopic That Should Have Been a Documentary
Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 nonfiction bestseller, “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents,” might seem a natural fit for director Ava DuVernay to adapt, but there’s nothing obvious about the resulting film, “Origin.” The New York Times bestseller diligently argues for caste as the connective link between systemic prejudices in the U.S., India, and Nazi Germany. DuVernay made two of the best films made about race this century: 2015’s “Selma” and “13th,” a 2016 documentary about mass incarceration.
“Caste” would be great fodder for a documentary, but instead DuVernay turns it into a biopic, dramatizing the writing of the book and using the author herself as the protagonist. Played by Aunjenue Ellis (“King Richard”), Wilkerson is portrayed as a woman struck by the loss of two close family members who channels her grief into the pursuit of a new intellectual understanding of American racism. “I have to be in the story,” Wilkerson explains to her editor in the film (although it’s unclear why), and DuVernay, in adapting her work, respects the author’s wishes.
It’s a bold stroke that doesn’t really work. “Origin” would have been better off as a documentary, but instead DuVernay’s screenplay labors to shoehorn the insights of the book into the conventions of the biopic. The actors do a fine job, with Ellis’s steady presence holding things down, but the film never finds a core dramatic tension, instead flip-flopping between various eras, locations, and planes of reality. As Wilkerson reads about Nazi Germany, the viewer sees two stories unfolding, one of a pair of Black academics studying in Berlin in 1933, who quickly discover that Germany is not a welcome place for them, and another of a young Nazi who falls in love with a Jewish woman. With so many other narrative strands—Wilkerson also travels to India to learn about the Dalit, formerly referred to as “the untouchables”—these stories are narratively threadbare and feel more like chapter headings than anything a viewer can properly invest in.
It’s fair to assume DuVernay knows this. She’s not trying to tell a dozen stories. She’s attempting to create a narrative by collage, approximating the spirit of a sprawling nonfiction book with memoir elements. It’s a film that hasn’t been made before, and she deserves some credit for the attempt, but it falls apart in its dialogue. Too many of its scenes contain words that would feel right at home on the page but seem stilted coming out of the mouth of an onscreen character. DuVernay tries to vary her methods, sometimes conveying these ideas in conversations between characters, and elsewhere having Wilkerson speak the film’s theses in voice-over directly to the audience. The scattershot approach, however, only draws attention to the clunky fit of didacticism and immersive experience.
If DuVernay had simply cut much of the dialogue, “Origin” might have been more worthwhile. She remains one of Hollywood’s best image-makers, and there are moments in the film—wordless, usually—that will stun you into silence. It opens with a harrowing dramatization of the killing of Trayvon Martin that the film returns to several times, showing more in each instance, as if our bodies can’t take seeing the entire tragedy playing out at once. She might be right. DuVernay also uses visual poetry to convey inner experience like no other; an image of living bodies being covered by falling leaves conveys overwhelming grief with perfect clarity. Within this filmmaker is the soul of an abstract artist, but she seems burdened by importance, and it leads her to over-explain, shouting every insight to the rafters, forbidding us from bringing any of our own experience to the proceedings.
Perhaps it’s simply a burden that falls unfairly on Black filmmakers. If they make pure cinema, like last year’s arresting “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” from writer-director Raven Jackson, their work will never be seen outside of cinephile circles. There are few paths for filmmakers of color who eschew commercialism. But when they commit to broad entertainment, like DuVernay’s flop adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time,” they leave themselves open to criticism of abandoning the struggle. These problems don’t afflict White directors, and that should be taken into account when looking at “Origin.” They also don’t excuse what is sadly an ineffective approach to a worthy subject.