Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin


The rare intellectual exercise that's also an emotional gut punch, writer/director Ava DuVernay's Origin delivers its most emblematic sequence toward the end of its 140 minutes, when all of the movie's many varied themes seem to intertwine in a heartrending, enraging true tale about a little boy and a swimming pool.

It's 1951, and 11-year-old Al Bright's team has just won the Little League championship. A celebration is scheduled at the local public pool, and the kids are excited for the party until they're told by property managers that because Al is Black, he's not allowed in the water. With the boy forced to sit alone, behind a chain-link fence, while his friends splash around, Al's all-white teammates are confused – why is he being excluded? – and his coaches outraged. And then a compromise is reached: Al can go in the pool, but only if the other swimmers get out of it, and only if Al doesn't let a drop of water touch his skin. With his teammates now “safely” on the patio, Al positions himself in the middle of an inflatable float, squeezes his eyes shut, and grips the plastic to make sure he doesn't accidentally fall in while a lifeguard slowly guides the float once, and only once, around the pool's circumference. No one watching this sad spectacle, children and adults alike, makes a sound, and the only words uttered are a quietly repeated threat to Al from that lifeguard: “Don't you dare touch that water.

Blessedly, we learn that Al Bright grew up to be a lauded artist and professor; he didn't let this incident from his past define or destroy him. But watching the scene re-enacted in Origin, and narrated (beautifully) in the present-day by a white senior who was one of Al's Little League buddies, you wonder, aghast, who precisely was meant to be helped, or even relieved, by the boy's horrific treatment. The clearly terrified Al isn't having any fun; his teammates, perhaps witnessing active racism for the first time, are confounded and hurt; their parents and coaches appear stricken; even the pool managers and lifeguard are anxious and afraid that Al might touch the water, which would consequently have to be drained and the pool sterilized. At the end of his reminiscence, his voice cracking, that senior tells his interviewer – Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor's protagonist Isabel Wilkerson – that he still wishes he had done something to protect or support his friend. “But how old were you?” Isabel asks. “Nine.”

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

DuVernay's telling of the Al Bright story is hardly her film's only wrenching inclusion, given that Origin's sprawling narrative also takes us to Depression-era Mississippi, Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the interiors of a concentration camp, and the bowels of a slave-trafficking ship. What prevents the film from being an unbearable sit, however, are the analytical rigor, deep wellsprings of feeling, and stunning ambition behind its presentation; DuVernay doesn't appear interested in exploring worldwide systemic oppression so much as smashing it piñata-style and seeing what tumbles out. Although her movie is inspired by real-life author Wilkerson's 2020 nonfiction Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list, DuVernary lobbied to have her script deemed an original screenplay, rather than an adapted one, for Academy Awards consideration. While her request was denied and a nomination didn't happen, I don't think the filmmaker was wrong in her preference, as this is one of the most original “adapted” works I've ever seen.

Wilkerson's book proposes that in order to analyze racism in America, you have to look at it through the prism of global caste systems – hierarchies in which one group is positioned as inherently superior to others. Understanding caste, Wilkerson argues, is how you come to understand mass oppression of all kinds: American slavery; Jim Crow laws; Nazi persecution; tyranny over the Dalit “untouchables” in India. Rather than employing a documentary approach, however, DuVernay delves into Wilkerson's thematic points by making the author herself Origin's principal figure, showing how a pair of nearly simultaneous personal tragedies inspired her to conduct the research necessary to write Caste. The film's title has double meaning, because it's both about the origin of worldwide dehumanization and the origin of Wilkerson's bestseller, and what's remarkable is how smoothly controlled DuVernay's hand is in blending the disparate elements so that neither feels like it's intruding on the other. Instead, as details from Isabel's life morph with re-creations from past atrocities, the segues feel almost inevitable – the past mirroring and expanding on Wilkerson's present.

Niecy Nash-Betts and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Origin

I'm probably making Origin sound confusing at best and like two-plus hours of world-history homework at worst. Yet despite some patches of unconvincing dialogue and a few awkward portrayals in the re-created scenes, DuVernay's film is exhilarating. While she's not one to shy away from overt, even distracting sentimentality (cue the arrival of composer Arvo Pärt's “Spiegel im Spiegel” soul-crusher), evident passion bleeds from every segment, and DuVernay has a thunderous cast in her service. Ellis-Taylor runs an astounding gamut of emotions while also gauging exactly when her inquisitor needs to melt into the background. And with particularly strong work offered by Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, and, for one harrowing monologue, Audra McDonald, DuVernay's first-rate ensemble boasts a bench wide enough to contain, among numerous others, Vera Farmiga, Connie Nielsen, Blair Underwood, Nick Offerman, Finn Wittrock, recent Tony winner Myles Frost, and even Knots Landing's Donna Mills.

As terrific as the actors are, however, it might not be them you necessarily return to when you reflect on DuVernary's latest. Rather, it'll likely be the chilling re-staging (with actual 911-call audio) of Trayvon Martin's 2012 murder, and the photograph of a lone German refusing to give the Nazi salute, and the nightmare of a public book-burning … and the image of a young child pathetically clinging to an inflatable float. Then, too, it might be the sunny joy of an afternoon neighborhood barbecue, and the enthusiastic countenance of Indian human-rights lawyer Suraj Yengde, and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor's beatific expression as Isabel offers comfort to the deceased. Origin is a work of heartbreak and hope, and it deserves an audience as vast as its aspirations.



With last Tuesday's announcement of 2024 Academy Awards nominations, a number of season-long questions were finally answered. Would Oppenheimer garner the most nods? (Yes.) Would Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie be attending the ceremony as Barbie nominees? (Contrary to what you may have heard, yes – just not as double nominees.) Would voters nix their chance at a super-cute, 20th-anniversary reunion for The Notebook's co-stars by opting not to nominate Rachel McAdams for Supporting Actress alongside Supporting Actor contender Ryan Gosling? (Sigh … yes … and I promise to get off this high horse of mine soon.) And perhaps most critically: What movies that I previously bypassed would I now, as an Oscars completist, feel obligated to see?

Thanks to streaming, I caught up with three of them over the weekend, and am frankly embarrassed that I didn't catch Best Animated Feature nominee Nimona sooner, in part because it was released on Netflix way back in June, and in part because it's utterly delightful. Adapted from ND Stevenson's award-winning graphic novel that I'm completely unfamiliar with, directors Nick Bruno's and Troy Quane's outing is a mildly futuristic Medieval tale – or maybe a mildly Medieval futuristic one – involving a fugitive knight unfairly accused of regicide and his unwanted sidekick, the titular changeling in human form who can transform into rhinos, ostriches, and whales at will. I'll admit to being somewhat shocked in the film's first minutes when our hero Ballister Boldheart (winningly voiced by Riz Ahmed) was greeted by a fellow soldier – the peerlessly named Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang) – who proceeded to clasp Ballister's hand and voice his love while Ballister tenderly rested his head on Ambrosius' shoulder. Boyfriend knights! Now there's an animated-comedy first! Happily, though, most of Nimona is, if not a shock, a delightful surprise, with its narrative weird enough to make free-style jazz a significant plot point, and its sense of humor expansive enough to involve a Murder Wall, the Banana Splits theme song, and a topnotch dick joke.

In all honesty, it's probably best for Bruno's and Quane's film that their release flew so far under the radar – I don't recall a single promotion for it on my Netflix home page – because at least we were spared the inevitable bellyaching after certain media outlets discovered its queer/trans “agenda.” (Not only is there a same-sex romance between knights, but Nimona's history, as evidenced in flashbacks, is pretty nakedly designed as an analogy for that of anyone who hasn't felt at home in their own body.) Still, I'm glad to see the movie now receiving the Academy props it deserves. The animation may not be all that special, with characters boasting the de rigueur Disneyfied wide eyes and some of the backgrounds looking strangely unfinished. But the script credited to a full seven screenwriters and “story by” contributors easily makes up for the relative lack of visual invention, its witty flourishes including a riotously convincing fake death and the be-all/end-all of commandments to the kingdom's citizenry: “If you see something, slay something.” Plus, beyond Ahmed and Yang, Nimona's vocal cast is superb, with Chloë Grace Moretz a wonderfully feral and snotty title figure, Frances Conroy and Saturday Night Live's Beck Bennett as members of the realm, and even a role as Nate Knight for RuPaul Charles. There's that dang agenda in action again.

American Symphony

Although we're still waiting on the national release of Robot Dreams (and the trailer that ran before Origin has me stoked), watching Nimona got me one step closer to being totally caught up in the Oscars' Animated Feature race. And with my streaming two-fer of Netflix's American Symphony and Hulu's Flamin' Hot, I am officially up-to-speed on all five nominees for Best Original Song. I suppose that could also have happened simply by, you know, listening to the songs. But I was more than glad to finally view director Matthew Heineman's American Symphony, a documentary that follows musician Jon Batiste from one of the greatest periods of his life, receiving 11 2022 Grammy nominations after an Oscar win for Soul, to one of his worst, with romantic partner Suleika Jaouad facing her second bone-marrow transplant during her years-long battle with leukemia. (Batiste is the multi-hyphenate singer/composer/instrumentalist who was Stephen Colbert's TV bandleader from 2015 to 2022; Jaouad is a bestselling writer who committed the journey of her first bout with leukemia in the popular New York Times column “Life, Interrupted.”) Legendary director François Truffaut once famously stated, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” My guess is that Heineman felt plenty of both during his project's creation, because you can sure feel it as a viewer – the blissful highs of Batiste's professional successes irrevocably intertwined with the devastating struggles of Jaouad's brave battle against cancer.

Most successful documentaries are collections of moments, and American Symphony produces so many memorable ones that discussion of the work can easily result in mere cataloguing. For my money, there were in excess of two dozen bits here that floored me. Batiste's and Jaouad's nuptials, which find the bride with a black leather jacket over her dress and green twist-ties in place of rings. Batiste shaving his new bride's head in preparation for her latest course of radiation, Batiste, in concert, taking a full minute's silent pause before performing a piece dedicated to his wife. Jaouad's teary response to her hospital wing's ovation upon her release. Batiste's incredulous reaction when an airport shoe-shiner only agrees to shine the artist's shoes after passers-by congratulate him on his Grammys performance. Jaouad, making her first public appearance in more than a year, beaming with pride as her husband performs his magnum opus at Carnegie Hall. Batiste hastily improvising a piano solo when the on-stage electrical power at Carnegie Hall unexpectedly goes out. But while I'll no doubt be watching American Symphony again, and soon, it'll be less for these and additional memories than for the gorgeous emotional totality of it all – a vibrant mixture of agony and joy, and an ode to romantic and artistic love, that can only, fittingly, be described as overwhelmingly, unerringly musical.

Hunter Jones, Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, and Brice Gonzalez in Flamin' Hot

I neglected to mention that American Symphony's nominated song “It Never Went Away,” composed by Batiste and Dan Wilson, is lovely. To a lesser extent, so is “The Fire Inside” from Flamin' Hot – much as I don't want to admit it. In the snarky and obnoxious realm of Oscars prognosticators, “Diane Warren” is something of a punchline, because the composer gets cited for Best Original Song the way John Williams gets cited for Original Score – for everything, quality, or even mere recognizability, be damned. Despite no wins, to date, over 15 nominations, not including the honorary Academy Award she earned just last year, Warren compositions have been in the Original Song lineup nine times out of the last 10, and for movies that you may not even know are movies. (Tell It Like a Woman? Four Good Days? The Life Ahead? Breakthrough?) Silly as it might seem, Flamin' Hot is probably Warren's most high-profile contender since the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG, and director Eva Longoria's comedic bio-pic is probably only (relatively) widely known for being that flick about the invention of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto. I snarkily, obnoxiously suggested in my January Oscars articles that although I was predicting “The Fire Inside” for a nomination, I was also dreading the prospect, because it meant forcing myself to eventually sit through Flamin' Hot. Well, the tune did get cited. And I did finally watch the film, which debuted on Hulu last June. And you know what? It wasn't that bad.

Make no mistake: It still wasn't good. In telling the questionably true story of how Frito-Lay janitor Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) employed his Mexican heritage to create, as he says in his annoyingly incessant off-screen narration, “the most popular snack [the world has] ever seen,” Longoria continually goes for the glib and corny over any approach with genuine insight; it makes Ben Affleck's Air look like cinéma vérité. And beyond the hokey, unconvincing scenes of Norma Rae-style rabble-rousing and the movie feeling like twice the commercial that Barbie ever was, our hero's repeated insistence on his honesty – “I'm not making this up!” swears Montañez early on – and the exposition's inherent blitheness make everything about Flamin' Hot feel phony. Happily, though, the film occasionally works within its parameters of phoniness. Longoria's pacing is swift and there's a fair degree of visual invention (particularly when the '80s transition to the '90s), and we're given a sharp comedy scene of Montañez being introduced to the cafeteria cliques of Frito-Lay the way Cady Heron meets hers in Mean Girls. Garcia, meanwhile, is a sweetly empathetic lead, and gets vibrant support from Annie Gonzalez as Richard's wife, the great Dennis Haysbert as a fellow Frito-Lay drudge, and, best of all, Tony Shalhoub as PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, idealized here as a benevolent despot whose reaction to his first Flamin' Hot Cheeto is a giggly treat for the ages. There's a “Fire Inside,” all right, and it's inside Tony Shalhoub's mouth.

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