Hollywood movies have a problem with intellectual endeavor; just look at the thinly imagined inner lives of the titular protagonists of “Oppenheimer” and “Maestro.” But Ava DuVernay’s new movie, “Origin,” a bio-pic about the journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), has no such problem. It’s hard to recall a movie made for general audiences that takes ideas so seriously, that makes the pursuit of them appear so thrilling, or that is so replete with the intellectual substance of the protagonist’s endeavors. Even good movies about writers often downplay the hard part—their work. DuVernay embraces Wilkerson’s work wholeheartedly and rises to the artistic challenge with one of the most unusual and ingenious of recent screenplays. The film is based on Wilkerson’s 2020 book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” and DuVernay’s approach—turning a work of historical and sociological nonfiction into a dramatized story centering on its author—is audacious. The narrative framework is capacious enough to give free rein to Wilkerson’s intellectual curiosity, to pursue the subjects of her attention far, and to parse their details clearly; and within this framework, DuVernay establishes a wellspring of narrative tension that makes the activities of research, contemplation, and writing dramatically captivating onscreen.
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Few Films Make Ideas Exciting, but “Origin” Succeeds
Atsushi Nishijima / Courtesy Neon