At first, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents seems unfilmable. Published in 2020, the book is a dense work of journalistic non-fiction, combining anecdotes and analyses to explore what the author views as the differences and commonalities between race in the United States and the deep-seated idea of caste: the formation and brutal enforcement of hierarchies the world over. Thankfully, When They See Us director Ava DuVernay has pulled off the enormous feat of bringing Wilkerson’s work to the screen in Origin, releasing soon from NEON.
Wilkerson’s book draws from plenty of pre-existing scholarly work, which she combines with her own observations into a sprawling argument. Her sources cover not only American anti-Blackness, but Nazi antisemitism in the 1930s, and the millennia-old Hindu caste or varna system in contemporary India, and she traveled extensively to perform research of her own, immersing herself in the story she hoped to tell. In Origin, DuVernay adapts both the text of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents as well as its artistic spirit. She brings the book to life by telling the story of how it came to be, making Wilkerson a central character, and reading between the lines of her thesis by connecting her life and real-world motives to her writing. It’s as much an academic study as it is a biographical drama—a balancing act that seems impossible to pull off, but one that DuVernay performs with stunning, moving effectiveness.
In the film, Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is between books when an editor at a major paper tries to lure her into covering the recent killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. However, Wilkerson’s thoughts seem scattered, and she can’t quite condense them to write a coherent article. The then-fledgling Black Lives Matter movement is a vital sea-change, but something in the ether is amiss, a reductiveness of language and perspective that prevents her from putting pen to paper. Maybe it’s writer’s block, but it comes from somewhere. We get plenty of peeks at her home life, from her sweetheart husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), to her chatterbox cousin Marion (Niecy Nash), to her ailing mother Ruby (Emily Yancy), whose health is yet another factor preventing her from diving back into writing. However, when tragedy strikes her family, Wilkerson is finally driven to start her next project (if only to stay emotionally afloat), but it comes with an array of personal and intellectual hurdles, which the movie develops side by side, until they eventually meet in the form of moving crescendos.
DuVernay is a filmmaker whose style, while powerful, has its limitations. The way she shoots conversational scenes has a stilted quality on occasion, owing to some haphazard shot coverage that results in awkward assembly—the individual pieces she carves don’t always fit together. However, this ceases to be a problem when the focus of her frame is a devastating, soul-bearing performance that seldom requires the movie to cut away (see also: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma). If she’s capturing a character head-on, or in profile, without having to worry about reverse-shots and reactions, her work retains the fluidity of traditional cinema and the invisibility of its editing. It’s perhaps for this reason that Origin sings despite its gargantuan academic scope mixed with potent personal drama. It has no option but to take on a swift, montage-like quality at times, hopping back and forth between not just events in Wilkerson’s life, but the lives of several historical subjects, like August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock)—a German in love with a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti)—who was alleged to be the man refusing to perform the Nazi salute in a famous photograph.
When DuVernay moves between Wilkerson’s life and Landmesser’s, she uses the chaos of the author confronting grief to imbue her camera with momentum, a sweep that transitions effortlessly into a thunderous flashback of Nazi Germany, as if these stories were part of the same continuum. Of course, drawing such comparisons runs the risk of poor taste—the recent Bollywood film Bawaal is one such example, using a reductive view of the Holocaust as a metaphor for divorce—but DuVernay’s approach to finding even her own parables plays like a form of artistic inquiry. Wilkerson, when she sets out on her journeys to Germany and India, isn’t entirely certain of what she wants to say; she has an inkling, but must search for the right words and reasons. DuVernay, similarly, doesn’t outright thread the needle between Wilkerson’s grief and her newfound project (though a desire to make sense of the world certainly binds the two concepts).
Instead, Origin searches for the right images to tell its story—the right stylizations, textures and modes, which seem ever-shifting. Its historical re-creations (of scholars like the Indian anti-caste activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar) fall aesthetically in line with the saturated, high contrast world of Wilkerson’s domestic life. It beats with warmth during scenes of contentment, but shadows and silhouettes consume her in her worst moments. Characters from decades ago seem to live in a similarly textured conception of reality, as if what we see of them were an extension of Wilkerson herself. It’s beautiful no doubt—cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd shoots the hell out of it—but it’s limited in its imagination, an idea that becomes clarified in retrospect once she begins expanding her horizon.
By returning consistently to the same set of characters in each historical timeline, the film grounds its sweeping historical retrospectives, and analyses of oppressive structure, in often wordless drama.
The further Origin delves into its subject matter, the more DuVernay is forced to modulate her approach. While she frequently returns to the traditionally dramatic—Wilkerson’s personal drama is never too far outside the frame—she begins to increasingly employ more essayistic and documentarian forms. At times, Wilkerson’s voiceover (occasionally adapted verbatim from her book) is accompanied by a myriad of impressionistic shots, assembled to create meaning that feels equally academic and personal. By returning consistently to the same set of characters in each historical timeline, the film grounds its sweeping historical retrospectives, and analyses of oppressive structure, in often wordless drama.
Meanwhile, in the present, Wilkerson’s conversations begin to take the form of documentary footage—à la DuVernay’s own study of structural racism, 13th—as she interviews a litany of American, German, and Indian subjects, each with their own unique stories to tell. Sometimes, as in the case of an anecdote about Al Brighton, 9-year-old Black baseball player who wasn’t allowed to swim with the rest of his team, these sit-downs with various subjects involve re-enactment. Other times, DuVernay blends fiction and reality, casting Dalit anti-caste academics like Suraj Yengde as themselves in order to re-create their conversations with Wilkerson.
The deeper this stylistic rabbit hole goes, the closer Origin comes to finding a monumentally beautiful core, eventually reframing Wilkerson’s efforts as an act of love—for her family and their struggles, and for humanity at large—an idea it portrays through simple gestures of affection. At key moments in the film, characters’ lay their hands on each others’ bodies and faces, in acts of intimacy that range from platonic to romantic to maternal. Even the film’s conception of grief, which eventually tips over into abstractions, employs the poetic imagery of Wilkerson lying among dead leaves, as the hands of loved ones caress her, but are slowly forced to leave the frame.
DuVernay’s lens, despite her previous films and shows centering on racial violence, has never been quite so unflinching. But it’s also in these moments that she, and Wilkerson, find meaning within their work.
Frequently, the film speaks of “untouchability,” from the treatment of Black people under Jim Crow laws (and their influence on Nazi Germany), to the continued plight of the Dalit caste in India today. In its most harrowing scenes, Origin depicts—with a raw visual intensity—some of the worst plights of enslaved Africans in centuries gone by, and of “lower” Hindu castes today, forced to clean sewers by virtue of their birth. These are moments that, while brief, create a sickening impact with their depictions of vomit, blood, maggots, and shit. DuVernay’s lens, despite her previous films and shows centering on racial violence, has never been quite so unflinching. But it’s also in these moments that she, and Wilkerson, find meaning within their work. The Dalit laborers they depict suffer untold indignities, but the camera lingers on their fleeting moments of mutual reprieve—the way they lather each other in protective oils, and grab each other’s arms to quite literally lift each other out of the sewer.
By lingering on similar moments across time, DuVernay makes touch, and intimacy, subversive—not just as physical acts in and of themselves, but because of what they represent. Her focus is on the humanization of the dehumanized, and on bearing witness to the love they’re so often denied (through segregation and other means). And so, she not only tackles Wilkerson’s novel-length analysis of dehumanization, but simultaneously portrays Wilkerson’s life in all its hues—its joys, its comforts, and its unrelenting agonies—ensuring that Origin fully embodies the very humanity that’s at stake in Wilkerson’s writing in the first place.
Published on September 7, 2023