But where Origin stands out is its combination of theory and emotion. Isabelle’s relationship with her husband, Brett, is an aspect of the protagonist’s romantic life but also an aspect of her political life. When he dies suddenly, Isabelle helps process what happened through her study of endogamy—the custom of marrying only within the confines of one’s own group. Her research allows her to both mourn him and celebrate him as someone who, by contrast, challenged the American class system through love and understanding. It is a simple but powerful demonstration of how educating oneself historically and socially can help nourish the soul and clarify personal struggles.
The film is shot using richly colored, textured, and timeless-looking cinema grain, adding to its sense of tangible literary significance. It occasionally falters with notes of overdrama that ring hollow, detracting from the refined storytelling. Scenes in which Isabelle is shown lying forlornly on a bed of autumn leaves, or she is depicted interacting with characters from the past through abstract sequences — “It’ll be okay,” she says to a young black boy who is denied entry to a whites-only swimming pool — feel somewhat jarring. When placed alongside real re-enactments of horrific events, such as the transportation of black slaves from ship hulls from Africa to the United States, or the separation of mothers and children in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“It happened, so it can happen again” – so goes the phrase uttered by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who is mentioned in the film in a museum that Isabelle visits in Germany. If the Nazis were inspired by American methods of slavery, as we learn in one scene, future atrocities could be committed in the same spirit of discrimination that is being committed around the world today. By exploring this terrible setting, DuVernay’s film unfolds with indescribable clarity and intense focus, full of vibrant heart and intent.
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