Toronto Awards Analysis: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Could Return Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor to Contention

Ava DuVernay’s latest film, Origin, followed its Sept. 6 world premiere at the Venice Film Festival — where DuVernay became the first African American filmmaker to have a film play in competition, and where Neon acquired its U.S. distribution rights — with its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Roy Thomson Hall on Monday.

As with much of DuVernay’s work, including but not limited to the narrative feature Selma (2014), the documentary feature 13th (2016) and the limited series When They See Us (2019), Origin is a project about race — or, as its protagonist Isabel Wilkerson (played by the gifted actress Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who was Oscar-nominated for 2021’s King Richard) sees it, caste.

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The scale and ambition of Origin, though, is arguably greater than any of DuVernay’s earlier efforts: it explores the story behind — and the history/continent-hopping story recounted within — Wilkerson’s 2020 bestselling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. The book was researched and written during a particularly trying time in the life of the author, who had already become the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in the wake of her first bestseller, 2010’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

Films that bite off as much as Origin does, with its big ideas and intersecting story threads, are few and far between — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s sprawling 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) come to mind — and are never everyone’s cup of tea. In Origin, there are dramatic reenactments of Trayvon Martin’s murder, slaves being brought to America, Jews being terrorized by Nazis and Dalit people in India immersed in human excrement. Some have been profoundly moved by the film, while others have found it a bit didactic, hence its current standing at 78% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Incidentally, 21 Grams stands at 81% on RT and wound up with two Oscar noms, both for acting, while Babel stands at 69% on RT and wound up with seven Oscar noms, for best picture, director, original screenplay, film editing and original score, plus two for acting. I imagine that Origin could wind up somewhere in the middle, and Ellis-Taylor’s quiet and commanding performance may be its strongest bet of all.

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