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Ava DuVernay is a curious filmmaker. She wonders about social structures and collective grief. Her latest movie, the investigative epic “Origin,” has one scene where she mixes her passions with her rigors. Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis) ran into her relentless editor Amari (Blair Underwood) backstage after a sold-out public talk for her book The Warmth of Other Suns. He wants her to write about Trayvon Martin’s recent death — a tragedy that is rocking the nation at this time. “You have an entire stable of writers,” Isabel playfully balks. “They don’t have Pulitzer Prizes,” he coolly counters with. But all jokes aside: Isable does have a practical reason for not jumping right in — “I want to be in the story, really inside the story,” she says. “And yes, that takes time.” A methodological ethos for DuVernay’s career, the scene also explains the emotional labor required to watch “Origin.”

But DuVernay’s adaptation of journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction work Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents isn’t a duty or a burden; it brims with drunken conviction. Isabel and loving husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) are what every couple should aspire to be — comfortable in each other’s habits and sensitive to each other’s needs. They start off looking for an assisted living home for Isabel’s mother (Emily Yancy). Isabel knows maternal loss is coming soon enough so when she suffers tremendous setbacks, tragedies that ultimately inspire her to write a book about Martin, there’s no going back.

The sprawling work won’t just be about race; racism as a concept limits our understanding of what happened with Martin.“Origin” seeks to connect the violent aftermath of American slavery to the heinous crimes committed during Holocaust through India’s dehumanizing caste system in narrative that combines gnawing grief with a cyclical sense of history. Though many question Isabel’s thesis, she travels to Germany to visit monuments (“The Empty Library”) and the Berlin State Library in a bid to find out whether the “Final Solution” borrowed from American slavery. Over dinner, accompanied by gentle music and relaxing red wine, her Jewish-German friend Sabine (Connie Nielsen) voices her doubts. “A framework is not a book, my friends,” says a patronizing Sabine. “She’s trying to connect the United States with Germany. But it doesn’t fit.” Low angle cut; Isabel tries to keep cool as wild, frantic eyes give away her disgust listening to Sabine explain American slavery to this Black woman — nope; the anger simmering within Isabel isn’t academic; it’s a tenacity that Ellis-Taylor brings fully.

Visually translating Isabel’s book onto screen is tricky. Shooting on film does help though — the 16mm consistency means that DuVernay didn’t have to rely on cheap gimmicks like giving the photography an ugly patina every time we jump decades or locations (“Joker”). Because whether she jumps from Nazi Germany or Jim Crow South or early 20th century India, DuVernay wants her aesthetic continuity to match up with Isabel’s connective thesis statement. “Digital versus film” talk aside, Lloyd also establishes a texture that lets us know we’re watching something important happen right before our eyes behind closed doors somewhere: Cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd loves close-ups — even trusts Ellis-Taylor enough here for him not only capture but conjure Isabel’s twisting stream of emotions

DuVernay does her part by carving out quiet moments for dynamic reflection. These still bursts of self-awareness can be personal, like when Isabel remembers how she met her husband Brett — years ago, he humbly crossed his suburban street to help her with a white exterminator who wouldn’t leave, challenging the worker to finish the job. This is where Brett (Jon Bernthal, an actor of exceptional soulfulness) recognized his own white knighting. “Did I just mansplain?” he asks Isabel. “Well, you did ask permission … and if you hadn’t,” says a blushing Ellis-Taylor. “I’d be in white savior mode,” Brett responds. It’s the flirtatious text that Bernthal has studied; it’s an answer that Isabel handsomely accepts.

Niecy Nash as Isabel’s cousin Marion offers Isabel acceptance and laughs, prompting her to distill her thesis into simple terms even as she struggles with her health; Nash’s humor complements the film’s headiness here. A recharged Isabel continues researching, traveling to India to meet Dalit professor Suraj Yengde (as himself) to learn about Dalit activist Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania). While Isabel is there to research the Dalit caste system, her application of “caste” isn’t culturally specific; rather its broader definition — privileges systemically inherited by a “dominant” class of people — is her lens for understanding shared mechanics of dehumanization and oppression across cultures, countries and generations.

It can be breathtaking watching these connections form for Isabel — but some scenes don’t have this elasticity. When her basement is leaking, for instance, she calls a plumber (Nick Offerman) who arrives wearing a red MAGA cap; through her grief she convinces him to actually fix the leak. But the sequence feels too didactic and on-the-nose to be revelatory. That doesn’t mean “Origin” should be dismissed as a lengthy lecture; at its core, “Origin” is a journalistic film. Like all great reporting, it demands for the viewer to not look away. So, as Isabel continues researching — interviewing, reading, writing — what we see is a Black woman at work in a profession that cinematically is too often reserved for white people. And thus “Origin” becomes a cumulative statement for DuVernay’s cinematic demand for the viewer to bear witness.

The director’s achievement is rare in Hollywood — Black women are often excluded from the industry before they can build a robust body of work (see: Ava DuVernay). But from DuVernay’s “I Will Follow” to “When They See Us,” you can see her increased command in intermingling collective ache with imperative action; here, she is meditative, poetic and nearly unfaltering. Importantly, the director’s desire never erodes into degradation porn. In fact, the film’s ending — a swirling, lyrical summation of Isabel’s argument that could only exist within DuVernay’s visual lexicon — is one of many landmarks within this movie for the director. Sometimes too overt, “Origin” isn’t perfect; but the character of any truly great film isn’t found in its perfection. Rather it arises from how the narrative moves us and challenges us and hugs our heart — and so while thought-provoking throughout, “Origin” is dense with ideas but still forceful enough to leave an impact … which makes it simply radical for Ava DuVernay’s career.

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