Ava DuVernay has taken a big swing and hit a home run. Origin tells the story of how Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson pursued an idea that tied the notorious murder of Trayvon Martin to the existence of slavery in America, the Nazi attempt to exterminate Jews in Germany, and the treatment of Dilats in India. The key was determining that it was the caste system, not racism, that fueled these phenomena.

The beauty of the film is how DuVernay puts us in Wilkerson’s shoes and allows us to learn and discover this connection, step by painful step. The casting of the gifted and deeply empathetic Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor makes this possible. DuVernay’s screenplay, adapted from Wilkerson’s best-selling book, is sprawling but compelling at every stage. Some episodes may seem tangential at first but they all contribute to the film’s cumulative impact and sharp sense of purpose.

The film’s ambition is no less formidable than the one undertaken by Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who devoted years of her life to fashion the best-selling book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. It is through her social interactions that she accumulates—first by chance, then by design—evidence to support her ultimate premise. This is not typical movie fodder, which is just one reason Origin is so fresh and compelling. Instead of talking down to her audience, DuVernay is asking us to reach for a big idea, one that takes shape right before our eyes.

Such a film demands a great performer to inhabit the leading role, and Aunjanue Taylor-Ellis is exactly that, an empathetic actor who exudes intelligence and purposefulness. This may prove to be her signature part. The other actors maintain that high standard and were clearly willing to take supporting roles to help DuVernay accomplish her goal of bringing Wilkerson’s book to life.

Origin is one-of-a-kind: a uniquely powerful movie that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. It is playing in a handful of theaters for one week in order to qualify for Academy Awards, which it deserves. It will reopen in February.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


May 2024