‘Origin’ (2023) Ending Explained & Movie Summary: Did Isabel Write Her Book?

There’s ambition, then there’s execution. Ava DuVernay’s 2023 film, Origin, grapples with a subject that has been relevant since forever: casteism. And what DuVernay has attempted to do here is something that you wouldn’t see every day: capture a global issue while telling the deeply personal story of an individual. The film follows the journey of Isabell Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote her award-winning book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. But it is not just some book. It also tells the story of the writer herself, who suffers as many as three tragedies, which, in a way, lays the foundation of her book as a kind of coping mechanism. Sadly, it doesn’t quite translate on the 70 mm, as Origin fails to evoke the kind of emotion it was looking for. It does have some strong moments, but most of it feels rather gimmicky and like a rather desperate attempt to make the audience feel something. Especially in its final 45 minutes, which mostly play out like a documentary, Origin becomes extremely tedious. The film still deserves some credit for at least raising some important questions. In this article, we’re going to look into that.

Advertisement

Spoilers Ahead


Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Movie?

Origin opens with the infamous Trayvon Martin shooting incident, which happened in Florida back in 2012. African-American Martin was only seventeen, and he was only coming back from a convenience store, but community watcher George Zimmerman found him suspicious and ended up fatally killing the teenager. The incident was so shockingly heartbreaking that even President Obama made it a point to speak about the issue and do something about it (too bad he couldn’t if you consider the fact that the George Floyd incident happened eight years after that). DuVarnay doesn’t show Tray getting shot in the first scene. However we do get to see that eventually, when Isabel hears the 911 call recording between Zimmerman and the responder. She gets the recording from her editor, Amari, who wants Isabel to come up with a story on the matter. But Isabel is reluctant because she feels it’s her responsibility to spend time with her ailing mother, Ruby. She already feels guilty for leaving Ruby in an old-age home, even though her husband Brett keeps telling her that it was Ruby’s own decision.

Advertisement

Why Does Isabel Take Up The Assignment?

Isabel’s life turns upside down when Brett (Jon Bernthal was wasted in this role, by the way) abruptly dies. If one tragedy was not enough, Ruby also dies pretty soon. Devastated with grief, Isabel decides to seek solace in her work. Her cousin and best friend Marion (Emmy-winner Niecy Nash, who’s the best performer in here as well) encourages her and supports her like a rock in this troubled time. Sadly for Isabel, Marion is also not doing well health-wise, as she’s also suffering from a terminal illness, and her days are numbered.


What Does Isabel Realize?

Soon after Isabel starts her research, she realizes that racism is not the primary reason people like Tray are dying or suffering. The root of all this happens to be much bigger: it’s always one group of people oppressing another group of people in the name of made-up superiority. Isabel comes to the conclusion that the fundamental theme of Jews being eradicated in Nazi Germany and Dalits being subjugated in India are the same as African-Americans being mistreated by white-skin Americans. It is not racism, but the deeply rooted casteism that has been causing all this suffering.

Advertisement

At a party, Isabel tries to explain this to her white socialite friend Kate, who fails to understand what the author is actually pointing at. I believe this is DuVarnay’s way of saying that a lot of white Americans have no idea about such a grave issue, and they choose to ignore it. Kate is played by Vera Famiga, which is a clear indication of the film’s attempt at bringing star power to the cast, even though most of the roles are pretty insignificant and underdeveloped.


Who Are August And Irma, And What Happened To Them?

Even though most of Origin‘s attempts to showcase the grave matter is superficial, Finn Witrock does pull off the part of Nazi party worker August Landmesser, who revolted against the fuhrer and refused to perform the salute, as suggested by a photographer. August eventually fell in love with Irma Eckler (played by Victoria Pedretti, who really deserved a better script), which made him a criminal in the eyes of the Nazi authorities. Irma was eventually taken to a concentration camp, as shown by the film. The problem is, for us to feel anything for these two, Origin would have needed to spend a considerable amount of time with this story arc instead of barely touching it for the sake of it.

Advertisement

What Did Allison And Elizabeth Davis Do?

August and Irma are not the only ones to be featured in the messy but well-meaning narrative of Origin. African-American anthropologist Allison Davis and his wife Elizabeth also play significant roles. In the film, the couple is shown to be working with Mary and Burleigh Gardner on a secret project where they try to explore the subjugation of black people in America. The 1941 book by Davis, titled “Deep South,” is the result of that exploration.


What Does Isabel Find In Germany?

Where Origin shines is in the few proper conversation scenes between its characters. To properly understand the relationship between Nazi oppression and American racism, Isabel travels to Germany, where she has a friendly argument with Sabine, who doesn’t want to accept that these two are related in any way. However, Isabel finds out that the Nazis built the blueprint of their barbarity along Americans lines. The only difference is that while in America, the blacks were sent to the bottom of society, where they still got to live and had the bare minimum rights, the Nazis thought it would be better to wipe the inferior Jews off the earth. Obviously, there was the inhuman obsession with purification, which was not there in America, but ultimately, these two originated from the same school of thought. And did the casteism in India.


Why Does Isabel Travel To India?

Easily the weakest part of the whole narrative, Isabel’s journey to India to find out more about Dalits shows India like any basic Hollywood movie: yellow filter, poverty and dirt. Although a welcome change of scenery does come, as Isabel travels to many historical places. But the film also turns into a full-blown B.R. Ambedkar documentary – and does a real bland job at that. Isabel suffers another tragedy when Marian loses her battle with her illness. She misses the chance to see her cousin for one last time, as she’s still in India. We do get a poignant scene where Isabel calls Marian and says her goodbye, although Marian fails to say anything. We don’t even know if the words reached Marian, but for Isabel’s sake, I hope they did.


Does Isabel Manage To Write Her Book?

The answer to this question is pretty obvious. Had Isabel Wilkerson not written Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,  Ava DuVarnay probably wouldn’t have made the film. And from the little excerpts of the book I managed to read after watching the film, I do believe the book is nothing short of brilliant. And that’s why it’s rather sad that Origin turns out to be such a damp squib, even with DuVarnay at the helm of it. If we consider DuVarnay’s previous works like Selma (2014) or When They See Us (2019), the subject of Origin seems right up her alley. But what ruins this one is her over-ambitiousness, where she tries to achieve more than she should and fails at everything.

Advertisement

Origin could have benefited from leaving out the re-enactments of the stories of Augustus or Allison Davis. Not to mention, the way B.R. Ambedkar popped up in the frame was straight up atrocious; nothing against the actor, though. Add to the fact that Suraj Yengde, an Indian PhD, casually appears as a friendly face for Isabel in India, and how Rohith Vermula’s name is thrown in the mix in a pretty much gimmicky way. In case you’re wondering, Vermula was an Indian PhD scholar who killed himself at Hyderabad University after being bullied for his caste, which recognized him as Dalit. DuVarnay’s decision to show instead of narrating doesn’t work because the scenes lack cinematic appeal, except the ones with August and Irma. I suppose DuVarnay purposefully didn’t make those scenes overly dramatic to maintain the overall subtle tone of Origin,  but why put all that on screen anyway? Especially when you have something like Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” in the same year, a film that doesn’t show anything but archives so much.

Another thing that takes Origin down a peg is the extremely one-dimensional characterization of Isabel. As the audience, we’re supposed to feel for what happened to her, but thanks to how the character is written here, Isabel’s grief is not felt. Neither the flashbacks of happy times nor her randomly breaking down in tears work out.

Advertisement

DuVarnay’s directorial skill can be seen in one masterful scene in Origin, when an eight-year-old Al Bright is stopped from entering a swimming pool because of his skin color. Al’s white friends can’t understand what’s going on, especially when they’ve all come to the pool to celebrate their little league baseball win, where Al played a significant part. The scene goes on, and Al is finally allowed to swim a bit, but he can’t touch the water. The scene crawls under your skin and makes you severely angry and helpless. The entire movie was supposed to make you feel that way, I guess.


Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

Latest articles