Jon Berenthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor put their faces together romantically in a scene from 'Origin'

How Do You Make an ‘Unfilmable’ Movie? Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’ Trailer Gives Us Some Hints

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents explores the possibility that the term “racism” does not fully capture the depth of America’s history of systemic oppression. What this system really demonstrates, Wilkerson argues, is caste.

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The nonfiction book gives a sprawling breakdown of the history and pillars of caste systems, focusing especially on India and Nazi Germany, and makes a compelling case for the idea that the United States does in fact have its own deep-seated caste system.

The book is extremely compelling but for most readers, it does not immediately lend itself to a cinematic adaptation. So when it was announced that Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) was adapting it into a film titled Origin, many were excited but also found ourselves wondering: How?

A new Origin trailer

The official full-length trailer for Origin dropped Friday, December 15, following a teaser trailer in September. In it, we get more of a look at Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft Country, King Richard), who plays the character of Isabel Wilkerson as she sets out on the journey of writing her book.

This framing makes a lot of sense. Caste is an intellectually engaging nonfiction book full of intriguing ideas but it’s written in the first person, with Wilkerson telling the story of her own writing and research journey as she presents her findings to readers. It is deeply personal and emotional and sees Wilkerson not just engaging with historical events, but with America’s tumultuous present up through the summer of 2020.

DuVernay appears to have succeeded in translating all of that to the screen.

When will we get to watch Origin?

In September 2023, Origin premiered at the Venice Film Festival (where it was nominated for a prestigious Golden Lion award) and also ran at the Toronto Film Festival that same month. DuVernay’s film started a very limited awards season theatrical run on December 8, 2023. It will have a wide theatrical release on January 19, 2024.

As for a streaming release, that date is unknown. Originally, the film was attached to Netflix but that was no longer the case by the time the film hit festivals, where it was picked up by Neon.

In interviews, DuVernay has discussed her struggle finding support from Hollywood studios, and her creative workaround for self-funding.

“Some said that Isabel Wilkerson’s revelatory cultural history of racism was unfilmable. That Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, cast in the central role, was not a big enough star to anchor a $38 million movie. And that multiplex audiences would shrink from a gut-wrenching drama that forces them to confront Trayvon Martin, the Holocaust, slavery and the mistreatment of the Dalits in India,” wrote the Washington Post in a recent profile.

Rather than be shut down, DuVernay turned to philanthropists for fundraising. The Post continues:

The foundations and donors who wrote the checks to produce it — including the Ford Foundation, nonprofits funded by Melinda French Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, and some public-spirited NBA stars — aren’t expecting a financial return on their investments. They’re hoping for a social impact.

In addition to Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, the movie also stars Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Niecy Nash-Betts, Nick Offerman, and Blair Underwood.

(featured image: NEON)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.