Venice Film Festival Review: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’

Origin Review - 2023 Ava DuVernay Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Origin review contains minor spoilers. Ava DuVernay’s 2023 movie features Connie Nielsen, Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


Early into Ava DuVernay’s Origin, the real-life academic and author Isabel Wilkerson (played with stunning gravitas by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is struck by the death of her loving husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), and then her mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy). She is in a cavernous black room lying atop a carpet of dead leaves that float in slow circles, landing in burnt patterns around her. It’s a haunting metaphor, a stanza of poetry suspended amidst a block of harsh and demanding prose. This moment, so loaded with emotional clarity, is justification for translating this story into a film, projecting DuVernay’s humanist outlook onto her grandest scale yet.

Origin traces the ideas of Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents onto the seismic personal loss she endured in the lead-up to the text’s completion and release. DuVernay’s films have always, on some level, been about the thin line between individual and collective grief, the faultline where people meet their histories. With Origin, she sets herself a momentous task, summarizing the story of global inequality, stretching from the Indian caste system to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and grasping her characters wherever they sit in that tangled web. DuVernay manages to somewhat alleviate any storytelling issues through her formatting of the script.

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DuVernay’s latest film works most effectively in its first half, assembling the characters of Isabel’s life and investing viewers in such well-worn dynamics almost instantly. Ellis-Taylor is a wondrously present actress who draws those around her closer with an unshakeable presence and charisma. When death unexpectedly wreaks havoc on Isabel’s well-balanced life, it’s a smart expression of Origin’s political argument — that grief is not evenly dispersed, that inequality means loss is condensed and redirected to specific groups. 

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From there, Origin follows the standard trappings of a “process” film, relishing in the piecing together of Isabel’s book, occasionally dipping into her personal life in glimpses, reminding the audience of how it absorbs the character’s taxing research. Yet as the protagonist learns of the unnatural rigidity of fascism, the film conforms to a more stubborn, predictable structure. Rather than adopting Isabel’s findings in a practical way, producing a film that reflects on the pliability and looseness of our humanity, Origin  descends into something frustratingly trite. “I don’t write questions, I write answers” she explains to a colleague (Blair Underwood), who encourages her to cover the Martin shooting. As an audience member, one can’t help but wish that some of those questions had crept it, offering Origin a less definite shape. 

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While Origin’s conclusion undermines the breadth and depth of its observations, there is much to be admired in the ambitious undertaking. DuVernay remains a master of imagining historical events through cinematic framing, and her latest feature is a devastating expression of that; a huge film that shrinks in scale by its underwhelming end.

Anna McKibbin (@annarosemary) is a freelance film critic. She received a journalism MA from City University and specializes in pop culture. Anna has written for London Film School, Film Cred and We Love Cinema. 

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