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Origin movie review & film summary (2023)

For her part, DuVernay carves quiet opportunities for dynamic reflection to take place. These hushed moments can be personal, such as when Isabel recalls the time she met her husband, Brett. Years ago, he humbly crossed his suburban street to help her with an obstinate white exterminator, challenging the worker to finish the job. Brett, tellingly, recognizes 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. The flirtatious text is one Bernthal, an actor of exceptional soulfulness, has studied. It’s an answer Isabel handsomely accepts.  

Isabel’s cousin Marion (a tender Niecy Nash) offers Isabel acceptance and laughs, prompting her to distill her thesis into simple terms, even while struggling with her own health. Nash’s humor and patience balances with the film’s heady topics. A recharged Isabel continues her research, venturing to India to meet with Dalit professor Suraj Yengde (as himself) to learn about the Dalit activist Bhimrao Ambedkar (Gaurav J. Pathania). Though Isabel is there to research the Dalit caste, her application of “caste” isn’t culturally specific. Rather its broader definition, the privileges systemically inherited by a “dominant” class of people, is her lens for analyzing the shared mechanics of dehumanization and oppression that have occurred across cultures, countries, and generations. 

While it can be exhilarating to see Isabel make these connections, some scenes lack such elasticity. When her basement is leaking, for instance, Isabel calls a plumber (Nick Offerman) who arrives wearing a red MAGA cap. Through her grief, she convinces the plumber 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. Similar to all great reporting, it demands for the viewer to not look away. Thus, as Isabel continues to research—interviewing, reading, and writing—what we see is a Black woman at work in a profession that cinematically is too often reserved for white people. In turn, “Origin” becomes a cumulative statement for DuVernay’s cinematic demand for the viewer to bear witness. 

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