Review: ‘Origin’ (2023), starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

December 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Neon)

“Origin” (2023)

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Some language in German and Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Germany, and India, the dramatic film “Origin” (based on the non-fiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”) features an African American, white and Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After experiencing two major deaths in her family, a grieving non-fiction author decides to write a book investigating how societal prejudices around the world are interconnected through different forms of caste systems, even though some people are skeptical that this is a viable concept for a research book.

Culture Audience: “Origin” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Ava DuVernay and movies that take uncomfortable but necessary looks at how harmful societal prejudices come in many different forms but have the same goals of oppressing other people.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Neon)

“Origin” weaves a meaningful cinematic tapestry that shows how societal prejudices are interconnected. The acting performances in this drama are admirable, but some viewers might think the movie’s pacing is too slow. “Origin” also presents multiple timeline-jumping storylines alongside the main story. This juggling of different stories in one movie might not appeal to everyone, with some viewers thinking that this narrative is too cluttered and messy. “Origin” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival) is best appreciated by people who have the patience to watch a layered 135-minute movie with no distractions.

Written and directed by Ava DuVernay (who is one of the movie’s producers), “Origin” is based on American journalist-turned-author Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling 2020 non-fiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” In the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilkerson presents the theory that caste systems based on societal prejudices have caused various forms of damaging oppression around the world. In “Origin,” Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, also known as Aunjanue Ellis) is the movie’s main character, who researches this theory by using three main examples: racism in the United States, the Holocaust in Europe, and the caste system in India.

Racism in the United States includes scenes and mentions about the Trayon Martin tragedy of 2012, when 17-year-old Martin (who was unarmed) was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by a man who followed Martin and called 911 to report that Martin looked suspicious. (Myles Frost portrays Martin in “Origin.”) The killing of Martin is widely considered to be a flashpoint for the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time this tragedy occurred, Isabel is shown to be in a happy interracial marriage with her husband Brett Hamilton (played by Jon Bernthal), who is a mathematician and financial analyst. Isabel’s widowed mother Ruby Wilkerson (played by Emily Yancy), who uses a wheelchair, lives with Isabel and Brett. Isabel and Brett, who do not have children, have an upper-middle-class lifestyle where they go to parties attended by affluent and intellectual people. It’s at one of these parties where Isabel (a former newspaper journalist) is approached by her former editor Amari Selvan (played by Blair Underwood) to do a news article on the Martin tragedy, but she declines the request because she says she doesn’t want to be a journalist anymore.

Although things are going well in the marriage of Isabel and Brett, the spouses have to grapple with the difficult decision of putting Ruby in an assisted living facility when Ruby’s physical condition requires more medical attention than what Isabel and Brett can provide in their home. Isabel has a close emotional bond with Ruby, as well as with Isabel’s cousin Marion Wilkerson (played by Niecy Nash-Betts). Within a year, two of these family members will be dead.

A grieving Isabel then gets the idea to write “Caste” and goes on an international journey to do research for the book. (“Origin” was filmed in Germany, India, and the American cities of Montgomery in Alabama and Savannah in Georgia.) Ellis-Taylor gives a very good performance as the quietly determined Isabel, whose grief is not just on a personal level but also on a collective level for all the suffering and inhumanity that she has to report in her book.

While Isabel is on this research journey (she travels to Germany and India), “Origin” simultaneously shows stories that took place in the past. In 1930s Nazi-controlled Germany, African American husband-and-wife scholars Allison Davis (played by Isha Carlos Blaaker) and Elizabeth Davis (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) experience racism when they are visiting in Berlin. The racist Germans whom Allison and Elizabeth encounter are openly hostile in their disbelief that black people can be well-educated and intelligent.

Meanwhile, a German shipyard worker named August Landmesser (played by Finn Wittrock), a gentile whose community is largely supportive of the Nazi antisemitic agenda, has to decide how he’s going to handle his secret romance with a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler (played by Victoria Pedretti), who wants to be more publicly open about their relationship. Allison and Elizabeth later team up with Harvard University anthropology spouses Burleigh Gardner (played by Matthew Zuk) and Mary Gardner (played by Hannah Pniewski) for an undercover social experiment that won’t be revealed in this review but is shown in the movie.

When Isabel is in India, she does deep-dive research into the caste system and learns more about the horrible treatment of Dalit people, who are considered the lowest of the low in India’s hierarchal society. Isabel also becomes familiar with the teachings of India’s former minister of law and justice Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a controversial Dalit leader who fought for the civil rights of Dalit people. The parts of “Origin” that take place in India seem a little rushed in toward the end of the film.

The problem that some people might have with “Origin” is that it takes close to an hour into the movie before Isabel starts her research journey. The backstory about her family and the August/Irma romance fill up most of the first half of the film. “Origin” certainly could have used better film editing in this first half. For example, the movie really didn’t need to spend as much time as it did showing Isabel and Brett doing a search for an assisted living facility for Ruby.

A few notable actors have cameos in the parts of “Origin” that take place in the United States. Audra McDonald has the role of Miss Hale, one of the people who’s interviewed by Isabel for the book. Miss Hale shares vivid and painful memories of experiencing racism as a child.

Connie Nielsen has the role of Sabine, a German who meets Isabel in Germany, during a small dinner party at the home of their mutual friend Ulrich (played by John Hans Tester). Sabine is skeptical of Isabel’s theory that the Nazis in 1930s Germany used racial segregation and slavery laws from the United States as a blueprint for the Holocaust. Sabine thinks the book’s concept is flawed and doesn’t hesitate to tell Isabel her opinions. Sabine says that slavery in the United States was about “subjugation,” while the Holocaust in Europe was about “extermination.”

In an earlier scene, Nick Offerman has the role of a plumber named Dave, who visits Isabel’s home to fix a plumbing problem in her basement. Dave wears a Make America Great Again hat (a signature look of Donald Trump supporters), which is supposed to signal that he’s the type of politically conservative person who might clash with politically liberal Isabel. However, the conversation that Isabel and Dave have in the movie will surprise viewers who might be expecting some type of confrontation.

“Origin” takes a while to get to the heart of the story, but its approach to the subject matter should be admired for not being entirely predictable. Just like Wilkerson did in “Caste,” DuVernay wants viewers of “Origin” to understand that although certain laws exist that have banned slavery and genocide in certain countries that have been notorious for both, the toxic prejudices that fueled these horrors still exist in one form or another. By bringing together stories that take place in various time periods, “Origin” succeeds in its intention to show people a deeply moving film that exemplifies Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote about the pitfalls of forgetting what history has taught: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Neon released “Origin” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

2018 Cannes Film Festival: Cate Blanchett president of jury, which also includes Kristen Stewart, Ava DuVernay, Denis Villeneuve

April 18, 2018

Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, Ava DuVernay
Pictured from left to right: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, Ava DuVernay (Photos: Getty Images)

Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett has been named jury president for the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival, which takes place May 8 to May 19, 2018, in Cannes, France. The jury will decide who wins the Palme D’Or (the Cannes Film Festival’s biggest award), as well as the awards for feature films that are in competition at the festival, such as Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director.  Other film-industry VIPs who are on the jury include actress Kristen Stewart (“Twilight,” “Personal Shopper”), filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time,” “Selma”), filmmaker Denis Villenueve (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Arrival”) and actress Léa Seydoux (“Spectre,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color”). The jury will reveal the prize list on May 19 during the closing ceremony.

As previously announced, Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro is the jury president for the feature films competing in the category of Un Certain Regard.

The following is information provided in a Cannes Film Festival press release:


Cate Blanchett – President
(Australian actress, producer)

Chang Chen
(Chinese Actor)

Ava DuVernay
(American writer, director, producer)

Robert Guédiguian
(French director, writer, producer)

Khadja Nin
(Burundian songwriter, composer, singer)

Léa Seydoux
(French actress)

Kristen Stewart
(American actress)

Denis Villeneuve
(Canadian director, writer)

Andrey Zvyagintsev
(Russian director, writer)

Chang Chen – Chinese Actor
Chang Chen made his film debut in the late Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. He rose to fame in the Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. His film credits include Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997), 2046 (2004), The Grandmaster (2013), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005) and The Assassin (2015), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Go Master (2006) John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008-2009), The Last Supper directed by Lu Chuan (2012). In 2017, he returned for Yang Lu’s film Brotherhood of Blades II and recently played in Forever young by Fangfang Li.


Ava DuVernay – American Writer, Director, Producer
Nominated for the Academy Award and Golden Globe and winner of the BAFTA and EMMY, Ava DuVernay is a writer, director, producer and film distributor known for the historical drama Selma (2014), the criminal justice documentary 13TH (2016) and the recent Disney’s cinematic adaptation of the classic children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time. Winner of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director Prize for her film Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay amplifies the work of people of color and women directors through her film collective ARRAY.


Robert Guédiguian – French Director, writer, producer
The work of Robert Guédiguian, an activist filmmaker, celebrates the city of Marseille where he grew up. Acclaimed by critics when he first started directing in the 80s, he met public success with Marius and Jeannette, which won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1997. His film credits include Marie-Jo et ses deux amours (2002) Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars (2004), Le Voyage en Arménie (2007), Lady Jane (2008), L’armée du crime (2009), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011). His latest film in date, The House by the Sea (2017), received enthusiastic response from critics and audience.


Khadja Nin – Burundian Songwriter, composer, singer
Youngest of a family of eight Khadja Nin studied music at an early age, before leaving Africa to go to Europe. Her albums are a mix of occidental popmusic, African and afro-cuban rhythms. She gained wide recognition and success with « Sambolera Mayi Son ». “Ya…” (“From me to you”) is a wonderful tribute to Mandela and the video of her song “Mama” was directed by Jeanne Moreau. International Artist, she became a Unicef and ACP Observatory on Migration Good Will Ambassador. She was awarded the Prize “Prix de l’Action Feminine” by the African Women’s League in 2016. She has been committed to support ordinary heroes.


Léa Seydoux – French Actress
Rising to fame with Christophe Honoré’s The Beautiful Person in 2008, Léa Seydoux is an award-winning actress, notably the Palme d’or for Abdelatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour in 2013. She successfully alternates between author and mainstream films. Her film credits include Rebecca Zlotowski’s Dear Prudence and Grand Central, Benoît Jacquot’s FarewellMy Queen and Diary of a Chambermaid, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World.


Kristen Stewart – American Actress
Kristen Stewart has been playing roles since an early age and received widespread recognition in 2008 for The Twilight Saga film series (2008–12). Her film credit includes Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Equals by Drake Doremus (2015), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ang Lee (2016), and several Festival de Cannes Selections On the Road by Walter Salles (2012), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016) both by Olivier Assayas (2014) as well as Café Society by Woody Allen. She directed her first short film Come Swim in 2017.


Denis Villeneuve – Canadian director, writer
Internationally renowned and recently two-time Academy Award winner for Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve made his debut at the National Film Board of Canada in the early 90’s. His first feature, Un 32 août sur terre (1998) was invited to Cannes. He returned there with Next Floor (2008), Polytechnique (2009) and the Oscar nominated Sicario (2015). In 2010 Incendies was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. In 2017, Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars and 9 BAFTAs, including best movie and best director.


Andreï Zvyagintsev – Russian Director, writer
Multi-award winning filmmaker Andreï Zvyagintsev has already become one of the most respected directors in Russian and international cinema. He directed his first feature film in 2003 The Return which won him a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He has continued to write and direct award-winning feature films The Banishment (2007), Elena(2011) and Leviathan (2014). His most recent film Loveless won the Jury Prize at the Festival de Cannes 2017, and was among the nominees at the Golden Globe and 90thAcademy Awards.

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