wed 17/04/2024

Origin review - bursts of brilliance in an unwieldy frame | reviews, news & interviews

Origin review - bursts of brilliance in an unwieldy frame

Origin review - bursts of brilliance in an unwieldy frame

Ava DuVernay loads her passionate adaptation of bestseller 'Caste' with too many stories

Incendiary material: the 1933 book-burning in Nazi Germany from 'Origin'Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Neon

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, about the key role caste systems play in subjugating whole racial groups, was a runaway success in the US in 2020. Here, the Pultizer-Prize winning black journalist is not so well known. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of her book aims to change that.

DuVernay has all the tools for creating a passionate polemic. She has already made a hard-hitting documentary, 13th, about egregious injustices in the US prison system that penalise blacks, as well as the TV series When They See Us, about the miscarriage of justice surrounding the Central Park Five, black teenagers wrongly accused of raping a white jogger. In her Oscar-nominated Selma, about the civil rights marches of the 1960s, she showed she could create powerful, atmospheric reconstructions of real events.

That brilliance is on show here in scenes telling the stories that Caste does, of the leading players in the history of resistance to oppression, and not just in the US. We meet August Landmesser (played by Finn Wittrock), the shipyard worker who is believed to be the only man photographed in a crowd of workers refusing to perform the Nazi salute; he then set up home with a Jewish woman, Irma (Victoria Pedretti), and later tried to flee Germany. We see Irma in a concentration camp, watching in disbelief as her long hair is cut. Neither survived the war.

Equally chilling is the account of four Harvard anthropologists, the Davises and the Gardners, who went undercover in Natchez, Mississippi to research caste systems among white Southerners. The black Davises had to publicly humble themselves in the presence of the white Gardners, to avert suspicion about their true identities. In 1941, the two couples published Deep South, a seminal study of their findings. 

We also see the Davises earlier, visiting Berlin in 1935, where they find Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front is no longer available in libraries. A concerned German tells them to leave while they can: terrible things are brewing. The camera pans round the empty white shelves of the Bebelplatz memorial to 1933’s infamous book-burning while all the famous writers who were banned are listed, names like Freud and Mann. This strand is particularly piquant as Caste has now been banned in parts of Texas. 

Lennox Simms as Al Bright in OriginDuVernay strategically opens the fiilm with the story that prompted Wilkerson to embark on her book: the 2012 shooting, by a Latino man, of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a white Florida neighbourhood; she holds back the gunshot for later in the film, so we can see Wilkerson's horrified reaction as she listens to the police recording of the shooter's call to them.

There are so many stories here, stories that needed telling — but telling at greater length. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting much more about the Davises and Gardners. Ditto another subjugated minority Wilkerson targets, India’s Dalit caste, still seen by many Indians as “untouchables”. The scene where they submerge themselves in sewerfuls of excrement, to clean them out by hand, is stomach-churningly awful. But soon it has been replaced with another terrible tale, like the shocking segregation of a nine-year-old black boy (Lennox Simms, pictured above) from his white baseball team at a 1951 pool party. Or we might be briefly taken into the bowels of a slave ship, whose dire conditions the film manages to make more real, and more heartbreaking, than any other dramatised account I have seen.

After chopping these stories into recurring fragments, DuVernay frames them with the larger narrative of Wilkerson writing her bestseller. As she moves between the US and Berlin and Delhii, we see her understanding of the subject matter widening and deepening; her shock at discovering the direct tie between the South’s Jim Crow laws and the Nazi regime's anti-Semitic ones; her growing realisation that racism alone cannot explain all the injustices she is observing, and that caste is the key. For her it is a breakthrough akin to solving a murder mystery, finding the “connective tissue” that helps explain why brown on brown subjugation exists in India, white on white in Hitler’s Germany. 

Niecy Nash-Betts and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in OriginBut in parallel to this creative process, we are also shown Wilkerson, affectingly played by Oscar winner Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (pictured above with, left, Niecy Nash-Betts), in every area of her home life, tending to her ailing mother (Emily Yancy), sparring with her adoring husband (Jon Bernthal), coping with losing him, sharing sparky moments with her amusing cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), then losing her.too. While Wilkerson is contending with all these vicissitudes, you do wonder where the film is going, what kind of narrative it is ultimately hoping to be.  

This frame was probably inevitable once DuVernay had decided not to make a documentary with the material, which is the treatment it cries out for. Her approach has the benefit of yoking together all the disparate historical elements in Wilkerson’s book, and adding the author in as a narrator. But this hefty mix unbalances the film and stifles some of its momentum. The tone can veer off into the academic, too, which again is inevitable since we see a goodly amount of Wilkerson arguing her findings with friends and delivering actual lectures about it. DuVernay leavens this tendency with a scene where Marion asks Wilkerson to explain her ideas “in English”, perhaps aware that they need a simpler unpacking, which Wilkerson duly supplies. The pedagogy, even so, sits uneasily alongside the highly emotive drive of the piece,

DuVernay also favours the kind of strings-heavy score employed in many an upscale American documentary, solemn music that signals, “What this film is saying is very significant.” But the film’s material doesn’t need this kind of underlining, it’s powerful enough as it is. Yes, this is a hugely important subject, and with luck Caste will make Wilkerson’s work even more widely known, but sometimes less really is more. 

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