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‘Origin’ questions the validity of entrenched beliefs

“Origin” (2023). Cast: Aunjanue Ellis Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Emily Yancy, Finn Wittrock, Victoria Pedretti, Vera Farmiga, Blair Underwood, Nick Offerman, Connie Nielsen, Audra McDonald, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Carlos Blaaker, Matthew Zuk, Hannah Pniewski, Myles Frost, Suraj Yengde Ph.D, Gaurav J. Pathania Ph.D, Thai Douglas, Lennox Simms, Emerson Smith, Alan Wilayto. Director: Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Ava DuVernay. Book: Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Web site. Trailer.

Adjusting to new outlooks that override established beliefs can be difficult for some of us. We’ve become so entrenched in certain ways of thinking that it’s hard to embrace new ones. We may not understand the revised concepts, either because they’re too radical or esoteric for us to grasp or because they’re not explained in easily comprehensible ways, perhaps too vague or too overly intellectualized. Or we may simply be unwilling to adopt such new thoughts because they make us feel uncomfortable. But, then, there are also those who take to them readily, either out of curiosity or an undeniably instinctual awareness. Those are the notions that surface in the new, fact-based biographical and sociological drama, “Origin.”

It should be noted up front that the narrative of this unconventional film is somewhat intricate, one that requires concerted viewer attention and can’t realistically be treated casually to fully appreciate it. In taking on this ambitious project, writer-director Ava DuVarney tells a complicated story, largely from the personal (though somewhat fictionalized) biographical perspective of an author as she seeks to write a book with some enlightening new views about significant sociopolitical concepts that challenge established beliefs. It’s a combination that might seem somewhat unusual and unlikely at first glance, but, when taken in its totality, nevertheless presents a compelling watch that’s likely to evoke profound thought and leave a lasting impression, one that might even change our ways of how we look at the composition of society.

The central figure in this saga is journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis Taylor). At the film’s outset, she’s promoting a book that took her years to research and write, but, after working on such a prolonged undertaking, she’s ready to spend some time attending to personal matters, such as caring for her aging and increasingly feeble mother, Ruby (Emily Yancy). However, before being able to catch her breath, she’s approached by her friend and New York Times editor Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood), who asks Isabel to write about the recent death of Trayvon Martin (Myles Frost), a 17-year-old African-American man who was killed by an overzealous White neighborhood watch volunteer. Selvan contends that there’s ample compelling material to draw upon to write such a piece and makes an enthusiastic pitch in which he says she’s the perfect candidate to tackle such a project. Isabel turns him down, however, citing her need to address the personal issues in her life, but the prospect of taking on such an assignment naggingly lingers in her mind.

Isabel proceeds to get her mother set up in senior housing, but thoughts of writing about the Martin case continue to gnaw away at her, particularly in terms of the deeper implications of the incident. She regularly confides her feelings about this possible venture to her cousin, Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts), and her loving and supportive Caucasian husband, Brett (Jon Bernthal), as well as Ruby, who’s quite outspoken about the outcome of this tragic episode. She’s also approached about taking on this assignment by a book editor (Vera Farmiga). All of which serve to further fuel Isabel’s interest in the subject. It seems that writing about this kind of racial and social injustice just won’t leave her alone.

Not long thereafter, a series of tragedies occurs, leaving Isabel devastated and unsure of her future. Ironically, though, she finds renewed purpose in her life through her writing, taking on the task that has been steadily nudging her forward for some time. As she begins looking into this emotionally charged subject, however, she comes across some surprising revelations that further stoke the fires of her interest – and her commitment. Isabel begins to discover that, when it comes to incidents like the Trayvon Martin killing, there may be more behind them than just the racial prejudice typically associated with them – and that the problem may go deeper – much, much deeper – than she or anyone thought. Thus begins Wilkerson’s odyssey to write a book that would go on to have sweeping racial, social and cultural implications, including ramifications extending beyond American society, spanning the globe and time frames reaching far back into history.

As the film unfolds, it follows Wilkerson as she explores her subject and seeks to explain its components in the book she would eventually write. She starts with a basic question: Why do different segments in society face more prejudice and ridicule than others? In viewing this question from an American perspective, she observed that such distinctions have historically been believed to be based almost exclusively on racial considerations. However, in examining the experiences of other cultures, she found that the same kinds of prejudice and ridicule existed there, too, but are (and typically have been) based on defining traits other than race. To be sure, the impact of these conditions in those cultures is and has been comparable to that of the American experience, but why is it based on race here and on other considerations there? Indeed, if the bottom line is essentially the same in both cases, how could race account for these results in the US when it isn’t a factor elsewhere? That realization intrigued Wilkerson, and it served as the springboard in writing her book.

As examples of this hypothesis, Wilkerson looked at the historical experiences of Jews in Nazi Germany and at the historical and contemporary experiences of India’s “Dalit” (“untouchable”) community. Both the Jews and the Dalits suffered under their oppressors, but, racially speaking, there were no discernible differences between them and their persecutors. In Germany, both the Jews and the Nazis were almost exclusively White, while, in India, both the Dalits and the members of other segments of society were almost exclusively Brown. So, Wilkerson postulated, if race really was the supposed defining trait responsible for the prejudice and ridicule inflicted on the oppressed, how could those atrocities have occurred in its absence?

To bolster her argument, Wilkerson examined the findings of other researchers in the US, Germany and India in the past and present. For example, she looked at the studies of African-American researchers Elizabeth and Allison Davis (Jasmine Cephas Jones, Isha Carlos Blaaker), who lived in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich before returning to the US to collaborate further with Caucasian investigators Mary and Burleigh Gardner (Hannah Pniewski, Matthew Zuk). Through their work with the Gardners, the Davises discovered that there were many parallels between what was happening in Germany and the US when it came to prejudice and ridicule, even though race was not a common denominator in both instances.

Wilkerson also conferred with Suraj Yengde Ph.D (playing himself), an Indian scholar who has risen to prominence despite having been raised under the discriminatory pressures faced by the Dalit community. He cites the experience of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania Ph.D), who was born in the Dalit community but managed to combat the prejudices against his people, fighting for their rights and eventually becoming India’s first Minister for Law and Justice, an uphill battle considering his background.

It took quite an effort for Wilkerson to wrap her hands around all of this material to find the commonalities. But, when she boiled it down to basics, she found that the discrimination experienced by African-Americans, German and European Jews, and India’s Dalits was not fundamentally attributable to matters of race but, instead, to matters of caste. In all three of those cases (as well as in countless others around the world cited in passing), the oppressed underwent persecution as a result of artificially imposed societal distinctions that were derived from differing defining characteristics, be it race, ethnic/cultural/spiritual backgrounds, or class distinctions., among others But none of these experiences were attributable to the same trait in all instances. Rather, they arose as a result of qualities defining the inherent nature of their respective stratified societies, with the treatment that one received depending on the caste layer from which one emerged.

Those findings were ultimately documented in Wilkerson’s 2020 best-selling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. This treatise outlines how caste systems arise, what makes them work and how they’re perpetuated, regardless of the defining traits on which these systems are based. And the film explores these notions in detail, showing how they become so embedded in society that we often don’t recognize their presence, taking them for granted and superficially attributing their existence to the defining traits in and of themselves and not on the underlying premise upon which they’re all based, regardless of what prompted their origin in the first place.

To some, this might sound like unexpectedly heady material on which to base a film, and that argument admittedly has some merit. However, it also gives us pause to think about what we believe about the nature of our society – why it is the way it is, why it persists as it does and what underlies its continued existence, considerations we generally might take for granted without a second thought. And it’s important to recognize those considerations, because they feed directly into the beliefs that we hold about ourselves and our society at large, elements that contribute to its nature, perpetuation and receptiveness to change, for better or worse.

This is important to recognize in light of the role that our beliefs play in the manifestation of our reality, the product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources are responsible for the materialization of the world around us. It’s not clear how many of us are aware of this school of thought, but, when we consider its fundamental principles – especially those related to how we fuel them with our thoughts, beliefs and intents – it becomes obvious what a powerful notion it is, particularly when imbued with the backing of our collective input. This makes potent collaborations possible – even on a society-wide basis – truly impactful acts of co-creation.

One need only look at the examples cited here and in Wilkerson’s book. They illustrate the outcomes that arise from widespread, widely held beliefs about “how things are” or “how they are supposed to be.” Because of the considerable belief power being fed into these conceptions, it’s no wonder that they have tremendous fortitude, persistence and resilience, not to mention resistance to change, especially when their true nature is purposely obscured or skillfully camouflaged. It enables those who wish to subjugate a particular caste to do so with impunity, often for enduring periods of time and with the unwitting backing of those who are unable to recognize that such actions are transpiring, simply because they’ve bought into the conventional wisdom (and the prevailing beliefs driving them).

Sadly, this is illustrated in the film through the heartbreaking story of young Al Bright (Lennox Simms), a gifted little African-American boy from Youngstown, Ohio, who was not allowed to celebrate with his teammates at a picnic and pool party when his Little League team won a local championship in 1951. He was the only team member who was prevented from joining in the celebration, simply because he was Black. He was forced to sit outside the pool fence and watch with sympathetic teammates bringing him food. And, when others boisterously protested his exclusion from the festivities, he was reluctantly allowed to “participate” by being pulled around an emptied swimming pool on an inflatable raft by a lifeguard, provided that he didn’t touch the water. (So much for the liberalism of the North.)

However, this is not to suggest that these manifestations are unchangeable, especially once we become aware of the true nature of the beliefs driving them. Awareness of what drives them makes them more receptive to change. And that’s a crucial objective underlying this film and its source material. By awakening the unaware to concealed beliefs and what they’re being used to materialize – in this case, the existence and nature of the caste system itself in all of its various permutations – we have an opportunity to change the nature of the game, which, in this instance, could have significantly beneficial implications.

This is apparent in the film, for example, through what Dr. Ambedkar was able to accomplish. Being able to rise up from the so-called “untouchable” class to assume one of India’s most prestigious administrative positions is quite an accomplishment, one that theoretically shouldn’t have been possible on the basis of one’s caste designation (at least according to the conventional thinking and prevailing social beliefs at the time).

This is also illustrated here by the relationship of August Landmesser (Finn Wittrock) and Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti). They lived in Germany during the days of the rise of the Third Reich. She was Jewish; he was not. Before they met, August was a member of the Nazi Party, but, after he met Irma, out of his feelings for his beloved, he turned his back on the fascists. He even supposedly went so far as to refuse giving the mandated Nazi salute at a mass gathering, an illegal act of defiance that was captured in a now-famous photograph. Circumstances didn’t turn out well for him as a result of his brazen insolence, but Landmesser planted a seed that would sprout later, showing that it’s possible to stand up to caste-based social orders in need of change – and that beliefs are indeed alterable to bring about much-needed reform.

“Origin” also shows how we can use our beliefs to set ourselves in new directions personally. Isabel was at a low point in her life when she undertook the writing of her book. She knew she could not stay locked in despair and had to find a way to get her life back on track. Her belief in the need to shed light on the foundations of institutionalized prejudice and ridicule became important enough to her to take meaningful action on the subject, a conviction that rejuvenated her and led to the research and writing of Caste, an eye-opening work that has given us much to ponder, especially in these troubling and polarized times. Let us hope we hear her message and employ it in reshaping our society for the future.

Those who unconditionally believe that race alone is the cause of social prejudice should probably give a serious look at this release from writer-director Ava DuVernay. Best known for her superb historical drama “Selma” (2014), the filmmaker’s latest examines how organic prejudices are actually a worldwide phenomenon that may or may not have anything specifically to do with race. While the picture primarily examines this issue from an American perspective, it also addresses the dictates of caste employed elsewhere in which race was/is not an inherent issue. Admittedly, the multiple story threads involved in the narrative and the way in which they’re organized could have used some tweaking for greater clarity and smoother connectedness, and the author’s theories could have stood to be presented a little less overly intellectually at times. However, in the end, the movie’s themes successfully come together to create a captivating hypothesis that we’d all be wise to consider seriously. What’s more, the depiction of Wilkerson’s personal story is filled with a series of strongly emotive moments that are sure to tug heartily at the heart strings, so keep the hankies handy. In addition to the superb portrayal by Taylor, the film also features an array of fine, small-role supporting performances from the likes of Underwood, Whitrock, Farmiga, Frost and Simms, as well as a cameo by Nick Offerman.

“Origin” was a late entry in the field of awards season contenders, with support from numerous Hollywood heavy-hitters, including JJ Abrams, Ryan Coogler, Guillermo del Toro, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. There were also high hopes that it would garner some noteworthy recognition, though, unfortunately, it failed to receive any nominations in the major competitions. Moreover, the picture failed to gain much traction at the box office and among critics, despite high praise from some notable reviewers. However, this is definitely a worthwhile, thought-provoking watch, and, thankfully, it’s now available for streaming online.

This is one of those films where it’s easy to walk away from it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the revelations exposed here could well make one sad for the needlessly sorry state of the world. But the picture also provides a deeper, more insightful understanding of what’s fundamentally wrong with humanity, providing us with a key that just might help us find our way out of the current social morass with a solution that could potentially help us finally fix things for good. As they say, knowledge is power, and the clarified awareness to come out of this film could help lead us to new levels of comprehension and compassion, elements we could certainly use in abundance these days.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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