When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) first conceived of the multifaceted premise that would eventually become the lauded non-fiction book “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,” her editors were concerned about whether she would manage to cohesively merge her personal experiences with all the moving parts of her research across cultures and continents to prove that it all interconnects.
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That’s in turn the same task that writer-director Ava DuVernay faced to convey the big-picture ideas and Wilkerson’s revelatory odyssey to put them on the page in an enticingly cinematic manner. To form a fluid narrative from all the threads, the filmmaker employs a non-linear structure enhanced with magical realist vignettes and historical reenactments to emotionally drive home the writer’s thesis that it’s not race that has divided humanity for most of its timeline, but the imposed hierarchies that systematically deem certain groups inherently inferior. Race, Wilkinson argues, is only a characteristic used to justify this.
The filmic reimagining, “Origin,” introduces Wilkerson at a speaking engagement not long after the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. The chilling audio from the killer’s call to emergency services plants the seed in her to consider writing on the subject of such ingrained hatred. But it’s the unthinkable double impact from the sudden death of her supportive husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) and her mother’s passing that prompts the prominent scribe to seek not only answers, but closure in her diligent work. Each of these loved ones offered a perspective on the issue that she must fold into it.