Ava DuVernay’s new indie feature “Origin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival as the fest was starting to wrap up on Wednesday, September 6. In the process, DuVernay made history as the first African American female filmmaker ever to have a movie perform at Venice in competition. The import of the moment as relates to festival gender diversity wasn’t lost on DuVernay – “Origin’s” writer and producer as well as its director – who on Wednesday told the Venice press corps in advance of the screening, “We are often told you cannot play international film festivals, no one will come, people will not come to your press conference, people will not come to the P&I screenings, you will not get into this festival, don’t apply.”
DuVernay credited the fact the film was made independently for her breaking the female color barrier at such a prestigious festival as Venice. As she said at her press conference, “I don’t feel like we would have had the cast we had if we had remained in the studio system.” The film was acquired by NEON on Tuesday with plans for theatrical release later this year. Speaking about production partner Tilane Jones serving alongside her as an executive producer, DuVernay emphasized, “It’s very rare for two Black filmmakers who work as a producing team to make a film that leaves the country. Black filmmakers are told people who love films in other parts of the world don’t care about our stories and don’t care about our films.”
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“Origin” is inspired by the life and work of Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson as she pens her seminal 2020 book, “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents.” A press release describes the storyline thusly: “While grappling with tremendous personal tragedy, Isabel sets herself on a path of global investigation and discovery. Despite the colossal scope of her project, she finds beauty and bravery while defining one of the defining American books of our time.”
Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (“King Richard”) portrays Wilkerson, and the substantial cast also features Niecy Nash-Betts, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Finn Wittrock, Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Connie Nielsen. Its executive producers include billionaires Laurene Powell-Jobs and Melinda Gates.
In terms of the reviews for “Origin” out of Venice, the initial returns were universally praiseworthy, with the film rating 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes for its first nine critiques. None of those was more reverent than that of Peter Debruge in Variety, who gushed, “DuVernay’s dense and dazzling movie cleverly contains the interviews and footnotes that went into its creation, as DP Matthew J. Lloyd’s camera glides over the bookshelves in Isabel’s home to reveal the reference materials that inspired the character.”
Debruge adds, “The film will get people thinking and talking. The way DuVernay directs it, ‘Origin’ is a swirling tornado of ideas. Watching Ellis-Taylor put them together is like witnessing Russell Crowe do higher math in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ or seeing detectives in a David Fincher movie standing before a bulletin board full of ideas saying, ‘It all means something!’ Here, Isabel proclaims, ‘The interconnectedness, that is my point!’ at a family picnic.”
Valerie Complex writes in Deadline that DuVernay “continues to establish herself as one of the most vital voices in contemporary cinema” before going on to acclaim the film’s cast. “Perhaps the film’s most significant triumph is its casting,” she opines. “DuVernay sidesteps the allure of A-listers, opting instead for genuine actors. The resulting chemistry, particularly between Ellis-Taylor, Bernthal and Nash-Betts, is palpable, explosive and undeniably powerful. And Ellis-Taylor, playing Isabel, handles these situations with a grace that is more than they ever warrant. Her performance is both compelling and, at times, heart-wrenching.”
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) also singled out Ellis-Taylor’s “poised and charismatic performance” while declaring, “This is a film with strength and purpose.” Meanwhile, in her review in The Wrap, Tomris Laffly describes ‘Origin’ as “ambitious, intellectual and deeply humanistic” and “a searing tapestry of rational and academic process, familial solidarity and romantic love, interlaced with drops of true stories that defied watershed events in history.” She also calls it “a smart movie about smart people, following a brilliant Black woman distilling chaos into rationale and generously pouring her groundbreaking ideas into the world. It’s a rare thing.”
Also weighing in is Stephanie Zacharek in Time: “DuVernay covers a lot of ground in a short span of time, and Ellis-Taylor’s quiet forcefulness keeps the story going.” She concludes, “‘Origin’ works as a visual summation of Wilkerson’s ideas. But it’s also a movie about a woman striving to bring her ideas to the world, even in the midst of her own personal crisis. The life we plan and hope for is rarely the life we get. ‘Origin’ is an exhortation to use every heartbeat wisely.”
“Origin” is DuVernay’s first feature since 2018’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” It’s her seventh feature overall, her highest profile project arguably having been “Selma” in 2014. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her documentary feature “13th” in 2017.
The film next plays the Toronto International Film Festival next Monday, September 11, before scheduling a run in theaters later this year.
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