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Flicks With Nicki – ‘Origin’

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Flicks With Nicki – ‘Origin’

(Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin” NEON films)
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These containers we’re in. . . Jewish people in Germany, the caste system in India, Black folks in America. . . have something in common. Race is not one of them.

I first became familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson through her book “The Warmth of Other Suns” and her participation at the Decatur Book Festival. Not only was it standing room only at the event, but the signing line curved down the street with eager readers clutching books to their chests.

Many had tears glistening in their eyes and befriended strangers while they waited to meet the author. Wilkerson seemed quiet and humbled by the admiration from the crowd. She sat for a long time in the warmth of our Labor Day sun until every single book was signed.

I was curious when I saw the trailer for “Origin” based on Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” This film would not only dramatize the non-fiction book but also Wilkerson’s process of investigation and writing.  

I didn’t want to see it.

I find movies about oppression and suffering difficult to watch. I’ve never seen “Twelve Years a Slave” and I have not seen “Schindler’s List.” These are important stories, but I’ve always found it difficult to shake the weight of the truth, even when told through a movie. 

Around the time I saw Wilkerson speak, Trayvon Martin was murdered. This is where writer and director Ava DuVernay starts the film. It includes historical reenactments interspersed with the author’s personal story of research, family, and grief. 

Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) doesn’t want to take on the story of Trayvon Martin, but she begins to connect what is happening in America to what happened in Nazi-era Germany, the Jim Crow South, and India today. The power of a caste system keeps certain people down and allows others to rise to supremacy. It happens regardless of skin color and race. It is a looming threat in every country and community. 

Researching across culture and history is not easy, but Wilkerson is a journalist and scholar. We follow her journey through time to honor the lives of people who defied caste despite the looming possibility of death. Friendship is worth it. Love is worth it.

On the other side of the story, we get Wilkerson’s personal journey. She has a husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), an aging mother Ruby (Emily Yancy), and best friend and cousin Marion (Niecy Nash). She must navigate three different kinds of love stories. Family matters to her. People and that love drive her interest in her research and all the while she battles the everyday microaggressions she faces in the world. 

Grief is inevitable. Grief is multiplied. How much grief can one person handle? DuVernay brings this to life, and the pain is made visible on screen. The imagery of her sorrow is shown through a bed of autumn leaves, and we understand this sadness. When the pain can’t get any worse, we see an unexpected exchange between Wilkerson and a plumber (Nick Offerman) as a symbol of exhaustion and hope.

It is easy to see how she and the plumber might be in different castes. Is it gender or race? Is it because who is an orphan or who is a widow? Is it because you are a blue-collar worker or the academic elite? How are we different? How many more ways are we alike?

The first part of the film moved a bit slowly for my liking. Without a traditional story arc, the movie took some time to find its footing. Many open storylines had to be tied up in the second half. And by the second half of the story, all the stories flew by. 

Trigger warning: This film contains brief, but powerful images of suffering, death, and murder. There are dramatizations of lynching, concentration camps, the Holocaust, and enslaved people on the Middle Passage. A man must climb into a sewer filled with feces. Books are burned. 

Humans have a terrible power to create horror. One of the most terrifying scenes does not involve violence or death. A small boy is not allowed to swim in a pool, and then he is. It is the most terrifying scene I’ve witnessed in a long time.

These are the reasons why I didn’t want to see this movie. These are the same reasons why I’m glad I did. After I saw “Origin,” I found myself researching the characters and the history shown in the story.

Caste systems are easy to create, but they are wrong. We do not live in a hierarchy of greater and lesser worth. People may debate the issue of race and caste, and I’m glad for the conversation. Debate is good. These conversations are crucial. 

We are all the same. None above. None below. When we collapse in our grief, what makes us different than anyone else? We simply have to open our eyes and hearts to each other. If there is an origin of our discontent, there must be an origin of our healing. We must begin somewhere. Grade B+

Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a writer, story consultant, and working mom.

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