Ava DuVernay’s Origin Is A Deeply Emotional Drama That Left Me Sobbing

 Jon Bernthan and Aunjanue Ellis in Origin
Jon Bernthan and Aunjanue Ellis in Origin

While art is subjective, the purpose of many mediums is to reflect the world around us and inspire important conversations. Film is no exception in this regard, with the silver screen capable of holding a mirror to society as a whole. Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s latest movie Origin is no exception in that regard, with the upcoming biological drama telling the real story of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Isabel Wilkerson as she wrote her acclaimed sophomore book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. And DuVernay’s new drama Origin is a deeply emotional film that left me sobbing in the theater.

We’re currently in the midst of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is debuting a number of exciting new movies that are headed to either theaters or streaming services. Origin is one of these titles, coming from auteur filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whose last film was A Wrinkle In Time. While that was an adaptation of the novel of the same name, Origin is a real story that takes an almost academic approach to the concepts of classic, bigotry and grief. And it is by far my favorite film I saw while attending TIFF this year.

Origin stars King Richard’s Aunjanue Ellis (The Help, If Beale Street Could Talk) as writer Isabel Wilkerson. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, Wilkerson is approached by a colleague to use her detail-oriented journalistic mind to address the 17 year-old’s killing, and the national movement that followed. Upon listening to the harrowing 911 calls that preceded his murder, she’s inspired to write her second book. But rather than simply addressing racism in the country, she instead does a research-based examination about caste systems in various countries throughout history.

In addition to following this deeply emotional look at caste systems and bigotry, there’s also a more personal story being told. Because early in the movie Wilkerson’s husband (played by Jon Benthal) dies, followed by her ailing mother. The themes of systemic and generational pain are weaved effortlessly with the grief of these losses, as her mourning process helps inspire Ellis’ character to continue working tirelessly on her book.

Throughout Origin’s 130 minute-runtime, we watch as Isabel Wilkerson finds similarities between America's history of bigotry against Black people with the systematic attack on Jewish people during the Holocaust, revealing that the Nazi party inspired its plans for extermination by Jim Crow laws in the states. A third connection is found with the caste system in India and treatment of the Dalit.

While the story is indeed dense and literary, Origin is also deeply personal and emotional. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (see facts about her here) gorgeously directs the project, with moving cinematography and bold visual choices. Case in point: Wilkerson’s initial grief and depression is visually represented by seeing Aunjanue Ellis laying on the ground, as leaves fall on her in slow motion. We also see vignettes of various individuals who inspired her acclaimed book, including an interracial couple in Nazi Germany, anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis, as well as grueling recreated footage of ships in the slave trade.

Ava DuVernay assembled a truly outstanding cast to bring Origin together. Aside from Ellis and Benrthal, the movie also features a gorgeous performance from Niecy Nash, who plays Wilkeson’s cousin. Other familiar faces include Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nick Offerman, Finn Wittrock, Audra McDonald, Blair Underwood, Victoria Pedretti, and Vera Farmiga. Some of these actors only appear in very brief roles, but that doesn't make them any less powerful. And it just shows how many actors are eager to work with the talents of DuVernay.

Origin doesn’t currently have a wide theatrical release date. In the meantime, check out the 2023 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience.