Friday Film: Origin (Venice Film Festival)


Director: Ava DuvVernay

Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga

Genre: Biographical drama

Ava Du Vernay’s Origin begins as a microcosm of everything about modern Hollywood that many people have come to dislike. It’s preachy, politically divisive, chattering class smug, dismissive of those who hold different views. And it feels like it’s going to be long, difficult journey to the closing credits.

But then the film changes gear and starts travelling in another direction. It still, at points, feels like a university lecture but one where the professor is so excited by a new discovery, that you can’t help but sit up and listen too. The rest of the time it’s alternately utterly absorbing and over and over again able to breaks your heart until you’re silently sobbing.

Ava Du Vernay at the Venice premiere

Based on the best selling book Caste: The Origins of our discontents by African American writer and commentator Isabel Wilkerson, the film explores, powerfully and emotively, the notion of caste. Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. The caste system is a hierarchical system under which one group is posited as superior to another. It is not to be confused, argues Wilkerson, with racism, although it often is.The caste system in India, for example operates for people who are all brown skinned, albeit varying shades. Yet the Brahmins are at the top of the chain and the Dalits, known as the untouchables at the very bottom. The Dalits are literally not to be touched and they, in turn, are not to touch the person or belongings of the higher castes. It was caste, says Wilkerson, not colour, that singled out the white Jewish people from other white groups in Germany during the holocaust. It is caste, too, she argues that better explains slavers than racism.

Wilkerson is played by an excellent Aunjanue Ellis who is likely to be a strong contender for the Best Actress awards during awards season.

The ‘lecture’ is engrossing because Du Vernay brings theory alive through Wilkerson’s travels to Germany, India and across the USA, as well as flashbacks to the work and  life of Allison and Elizabeth Davis, a black couple whose 1941 book Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class provided the foundation for Wilkerson’s ideas.

The research and interviews Wilkerson conducts allow Du Vernay to lay bare the brutal degradation of the Dalits in India who are forced to clear sewage with their bare hands in exchange for leftover food, the dehumanising of Jewish adults and children as just one mass of unidentifiable humanity with their shorn heads and gas camp uniforms and the interconnection of Nazi legislation with the Jim Crow laws in  a segregated USA. With her idea of caste being the pernicious kernel of subjugation rather than race, Wilkerson seeks to draw together many threads including the shooting of black teenage Trayvon Martin, her own white husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), slavery, segregation, anti semitism and the myths of superiority and inferiority between humans.

And of all that sounds way too heavy, we have Wilkerson’s cousin Marion (Niecy Nash) asking her, at a family barbecue, to break it down, so that a non Pulitzer Prize winner can understand it.

But the heart and soul of Origin lies in the heart wrenching way Du Vernay weaves the tragedies of Wilkerson’s personal life into her work and professional awakening.

Bereavement, loss, and grief can be as tricky to get right on film as comedy. Du Vernay, aided ably by Ellis, handles all three with a poetic delicacy that does not diminish the gut wrenching effect on the one left behind who experiences it as a body blow. During the course of her research and writing Wilkerson loses the three most important people in her life. How to be and carry on, in the aftermath of having had chunks of your heart ripped away, is no easy task in real life or on reel life. It’s a testament to the direction and performance of Du Vernay and Ellis, respectively that we, as an audience, feel every beat of Wilkerson’s sorrow and heartbreak break and come out the other end with hope.

Origin is likely to gain Du Vernay a Best Director nomination and maybe the Golden Lion at Venice where she became the first African American woman to have a film in competition. If she wins, it will be the start of her having to clear some space on her mantelpiece.