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There are certain films that have changed the way Americans see themselves by addressing knotty issues about the history of this country. Films can bypass our defenses and bring us to places of awareness, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Philadelphia, Glory, and Saving Private Ryan. These films prompted conversations about race in the South, AIDS in the 1980s, the role of Black soldiers in the Civil War, and the World War II battle on the Normandy beaches where American soldiers gave their lives. Another film in this vein is Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece Origin. It is based on the life of Isabel Wilkerson, played by the wonderful Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she writes the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Rather than tackling the massive 395-page book of historical research as a documentary, DuVernay made a smart decision: tell the story of caste in the United States, Germany, and India through Wilkerson’s life, losing her husband Brett Hamilton (Jon Bernthal), mother Ruby (Emily Yancy), and cousin-confidante Marion (Niecy Nash) while researching the origin of racial hierarchies.

The film begins with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 near Sanford, Fla., an event that drew Wilkerson into exploring race in America from a different lens. Ellis-Taylor, superb in this role, takes us through a pivotal scene as Wilkerson assesses her mother’s basement plumbing as she readies the house for sale. Dave the Plumber, played by Nick Offerman, enters the house wearing a red MAGA hat; racial tension bubbles up quickly. Wilkerson slyly interviews him about his family, which puts Dave at ease. These types of moments capture cinematic gold throughout the film. DuVernay knows how to tell the complex story of caste in America, Germany, and India; there is deep humanity in every scene.

Every Christian who wants to understand the polarization of race and why it is so tough to talk about these days should read her books, The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste. They should also see this film, which enhances the books by giving us a peek into the personal grief that fueled and frustrated the writing process. (Apple TV +, Amazon Prime, and other platforms)

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