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Origin 2023


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review

American racism can seem like an octopus with a thousand tentacles. From Jefferson Davis to Jim Crow to Trayvon Martin, it grasps and holds and chokes. It’s to blame for everything, from lynchings to lily-white country clubs, from hateful slurs to sideways glances. Racism is at the root of all sorts of evil.

Or … is it?

Isabel Wilkerson wonders.

Many decry the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man shot by a nervous neighborhood watch volunteer, as an act of racism. But Isabel wonders why a Hispanic man would shoot a Black man to protect a predominantly White neighborhood. She wonders why, if Southern slaveholders considered their slaves to be subhuman, they entrusted the care of their own children to them. She wonders why every injustice against African Americans is called racist. Is that always the most accurate lens?

“When you call everything ‘racism,’ what does that even mean anymore?” Wilkerson asks. “Racism as the primary language to understand everything isn’t sufficient.”

It’s not that Isabel doubts that racism exists. As a Black woman, she’s seen plenty of it. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, she’s written about it plenty, too. But she suspects that America’s racial issues go deeper than that. And she wonders, if she dug deeper herself, just what she might find. 

Amari Selvan, her editor for The New York Times, wants Wilkerson to wonder. He wants her to explore these issues—for, of course, the Times. Write about Trayvon Martin, he pleads. Ask these questions. “Writers write,” he tells her. “So write.”

She doesn’t want to write. Not about this. Not now. And certainly not for a newspaper. Plus, she’d like to take a step back at the moment. Care for her aging mom. Spend time with her husband, Brett. “I’m on hiatus,” she tells Amari.

But then tragedy hits home, and hits hard. And the questions—the wondering—still dig deep underneath Isabel’s skin.

Writers write, Amari told her. So Isabel starts writing.

Positive Elements

And what does Isabel write? A nonfiction book titled Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Published (in real life, not just in the movie) in 2020, the book has since become both a bestseller and one of the young century’s most influential explorations on race.

Through the book (at least as shown in Origin), Isabel investigates not just fractious American race relations, but the correlations she finds in the caste system of India and the ostracization of Jews in the years leading up to World War II. And while exposing the evils of prejudice is a positive in itself, Isabel also introduces us to some heroes who either studied or pushed against those prejudices.

We hear about Allison and Elizabeth Davis, Black anthropologists who saw first-hand the book burning in Nazi Germany—and who were advised by a friendly German to leave the country soon. When they returned, they cowrote (with White anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner) an in-depth study of race relations in their book Deep South, with each couple going undercover, sometimes with great risk, to explore the culture’s intricate social dynamics.

We’re introduced to B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian man born into the untouchable caste, who went on to spearhead the writing of India’s constitution. Though he wasn’t even allowed a desk in school, he became one of the country’s most revered leaders—and, because of his caste, reviled. Isabel sees a statue of the man in an Indian marketplace, protected by a cage. She’s told it’s because Ambedkar’s statues are among the country’s most vandalized.

We meet August Landmesser, who conspicuously did not participate in a Nazi salute in a famous propaganda photo, circa 1936. His silent protest stemmed from his love of a Jewish woman and the Nazi party’s horrifically discriminatory practices.

Meanwhile, Isabel’s husband, Brett, is a White man who’s devoted to Isabel and supportive of her work. Isabel also loves her mother deeply, and we hear how Isabel relies on her.

Isabel writes about how it’s far easier to dehumanize a group of people than one person. “It’s harder to dehumanize someone you’ve gotten a chance to know,” she says. And when she’s forced to work with a plumber whom Isabel suspects is racist (more on that below), she does something quite ingenious. As he essentially refuses to investigate Isabel’s plumbing woes, Isabel tells him about her parents and asks about his. As they “get to know” each other, even superficially, the plumber’s hostility drains away, and he investigates the plumbing problem more seriously.

Isabel spends a great deal of time contrasting how differently Germany has dealt with its own problematic past (making it illegal to fly a swastika, for instance, and bulldozing and paving over old Nazi structures) compared to how the American South has.

Spiritual Elements

We see a Christian cross hang in the home of Isabel’s mother. Isabel attends a Christian funeral. When a friend of hers is dying, Isabel tells the woman—who’s seemingly in a coma—that she’s set to embark on a wonderful, wide-open afterlife. “I won’t see you, but you’ll see me,” she says. “There’s more to life than what you can see. You’re going to experience it all.”

As mentioned, Isabel investigates how Nazi Germany discriminated against Jews. We hear about and see that discrimination, including telltale stars of David pinned to clothes.

Sexual Content

The movie spends a great deal of time discussing the concept of endogamy—that is, how caste systems almost always prohibit marriage or intimate relationships between caste classes. For the most part, Isabel (and the movie) treats this idea clinically. But the story does address the social stigma of sex between classes and any progeny that might be a product of such.

The film emphasizes this “pillar” (one of eight in Wilkerson’s real book) in part because Isabel and Brett’s own marriage would violate caste protocols. (Many U.S. states had laws prohibiting or discouraging interracial marriage and relationships as late as 1967.) The relationship of another couple (August Landmesser and his partner, Irma) also bucked Nazi Germany’s own laws against Jews loving and marrying outside their own “caste,” and we them fight to stay together.

Both couples kiss affectionately and often. A man calls another man “sweetheart.” Men and women in a slave ship seem to be either naked or nearly so—but obviously, the context is not sexual. Likewise, a Dalit (a subgroup of the untouchable caste) prepares for a gross job while wearing very little.

Violent Content

Origin flashes back to some intense illustrations of extreme prejudice.

Amari, Isabel’s Times editor, convinces Isabel to listen to the 911 calls made on the night of Trayvon Martin’s death. As Isabel and the movie audience listen, we hear the last moments of Martin’s life play out, including the final struggle. We hear the gunshot and watch as Martin takes his last breath.

Countless men and women are shown in a slave ship, their hands in manacles and stacked and boxed like livestock. One woman is apparently raped, though we only see a shadow from behind and the woman scream. A slave shares his space with a corpse.

Another scene depicts the lynching of a Black man in perhaps the 1950s—the culmination of a community picnic, it seems. Kids gather ‘round as the man is pulled up to the tree by his neck; we see his feet writhe and jerk, proving he’s still alive. Shortly thereafter, the 40 or so White men, women and children on hand pose for a picture underneath the dangling Black body.

As Jewish mothers are separated from their children at a Nazi facility, a woman dashes toward her son. She’s caught and forced to the ground, where a soldier points a gun to her head. The camera turns then to the horrified faces of other mothers as we hear the gunshot. Elsewhere, men comb through the clothes of those sent to concentration camps. Books are burned in a massive bonfire.

In the present, a man is found dead on a bedroom floor.

Crude or Profane Language

One s-word and a handful of other profanities, including “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” Jesus’ name is abused once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Isabel and others drink champagne, wine and beer in some social situations.

Other Negative Elements

We hear about Dalits who were allowed to do only the dirtiest of jobs, and even then only for scraps of leftover food. One job acceptable for Dalits to do? To clean toilets and sewers with their bare hands. We see one Dalit oil himself up and then step into a hideous cesspool of human sewage, almost literally swimming in the excrement. (The pool of raw sewage is separated from the public toilets by a wall, and we see men using those toilets.)

The story addresses the subjects of see racism, antisemitism and various forms of prejudice throughout the film. That’s a positive theme. But while Origin certainly does not condone the racist words and actions it critiques here, viewers still see a lot of it.

The film also contains a few brief-but-inescapable backhand comments about certain social or political stances that run counter to Isabel’s (or the movie’s) own editorial slant. Whether those instances or negative or not depends, largely, on the moviegoer’s own views.

For instance, the potentially racist plumber mentioned in our Positive Elements section wears a “Make America Great Again” hat—a visual cue the film arguably gives linking conservative politics and racism. Isabel notes that statues honoring Civil War generals still proliferate below the Mason/Dixon line. At the time of her conversations here, we see that Mississippi still incorporated the Confederate flag into its state flag. (The state did change its flag in 2021, a few months after the publication of Wilkerson’s book; she describes it in the movie as “a flag of murderers and traitors”)

Isabel likewise suggests that Palestinians are victims of a caste system.


As Isabel finishes her book Caste: The Origins of Discontent, she compares the caste-related strife in our history to that of a house. And while she’s sympathetic to those who say they played no part in the slave trade or Jim Crow laws, the house—partly built on those foundations—still stands, she argues. “We didn’t erect the uneven pillars, but they are ours to deal with now,” she tells us. “The cracks won’t fix themselves. Any more deterioration is on our watch.”

Wilkerson’s real-world book sounds fascinating, and Origin—the movie spawned by that book—brings to light what I’d assume would be some of the book’s most interesting theses, as well as its most poignant and powerful stories.

But it’s hard to make a compelling dramatic narrative from a work of meticulously researched nonfiction. And as such, Origin comes with a few cracks of its own.

The film is convincing and convicting, but it can feel a little preachy, too. It has some moments that could trigger conservative viewers, not draw them in. And—thanks largely to about 10-15 minutes of flashbacks near the end of the film—Origin pushes against its PG-13 rating. It does so by exposing viewers to some really difficult-to-watch moments that, while historically accurate, can still be hard to stomach.

It’s been said by many that the best movies don’t answer questions: They ask them. Origin, while clearly a work of skill and passion by director Ava DuVernay, asks a series of provocative questions and then unapologetically addresses them. Isabel herself says that’s her goal from the outset: to find answers.

So while Origin makes me want to read Wilkerson’s book, it makes for a movie that falls a bit short of its ambitions.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.