Making a movie about the writing of a book is an almost impossible mandate. How to translate the process—the research, the long, lonely hours of filling screen after screen with prose, the invisible band of self-doubt that can encircle a writer during the toughest times—into terms that work visually on-screen, that draw an audience into a mode of work that’s intensely private? Ava DuVernay pulls it off intelligently with Origin, playing in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which follows journalist Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she brings her 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents from conception to completion.
Simply researching and writing this ambitious book would have been enough. But Wilkerson embarked on it, and finished it, during a time of tremendous personal loss. DuVernay dramatizes Wilkerson’s efforts to push through, devoted to the mission of her book even as she’s rocked by waves of grief. This is a sensitively made picture, one that humanizes the writing process, giving us a sense of the life behind the words on the page; it also lays out the book’s ideas succinctly. DuVernay covers a lot of ground in a short span of time, and Ellis-Taylor’s quiet forcefulness keeps the story going.