Every awards season, pundits leave themselves open to late-year breakers. This is where a film not necessarily on anyone’s radar comes in and walks away with the industry’s most coveted prize for best picture. Past examples include Clint Eastwood’s 2004 winner “Million Dollar Baby.” Now, and coming only days after I declared “American Fiction” from Cord Jefferson my favorite film of TIFF so far, DuVernay cinematically states, “Hold my beer” with her emotional drama “Origin.”
Within the awards punditry world, it’s increasingly been agreed upon that director Christopher Nolan is in the pole position to win his first statuette for directing “Oppenheimer.” However, DuVernay emerges after bowing at Venice, and now at TIFF, as a viable challenger for the crown. In addition, her leading lady Anjanue Ellis-Taylor is a sure-fire contender for best actress.
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While I wiped tears and snot away during the film’s end credits, I couldn’t help but feel I witnessed something exemplary and special I don’t see too often. One of the most challenging things to articulate and understand throughout my life is my own identifying and personal relationship with my own ethnicity and race. As a Puerto Rican-Black man, who has felt rejection from white people, and even my own community at times, “Origin” was a direct hit posing some of the most daunting questions I have in my own life.
With an open heart, and some Kleenex tissues, “Origin” presents itself as a film with enough quality to rival some of this season’s presumed Oscar frontrunners such as Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” A top-to-bottom awards player in multiple categories, it could put Neon in the pole position for this upcoming season.
“Origin” is based upon the Isabel Wilkerson nonfiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.” It follows a journalist (Ellis-Taylor) on the journey to write the bestseller, as she grapples with tremendous personal tragedy.
During the Q&A, DuVernay answered an audience question regarding about how she took care of her actors on set. She talked about having mental health professionals while shooting who were readily available to the cast and crew. You can feel her care, not only for her actors, but in Wilkerson’s deeply emotional and resonating story.
DuVernay has made history at the Oscars multiple times. For her Martin Luther King Jr. film “Selma” (2014), she became the first Black woman to direct a movie nominated for best picture. She garnered the same distinction in 2017 with her masterful “13th,” becoming the first Black woman nominated for best documentary feature.
Like the ideas Wilkerson presents in her book, DuVernay tackles a broad idea of the origins of racism and class in our global community. Topics surrounding social justice and race are often treated like the “F word” in society, especially in our tumultuous political climate. No matter how many journalists and pundits will write about the film’s meticulous and non-preachy nature, Academy members often struggle to engage with Black stories tackling topics such as these — notably, one that features the murder of Trayvon Martin. Neon and its awards team will need to challenge Hollywood head-on and ensure the right people see this movie.
It won’t just be about adapted screenplay, as DuVernay makes the most compelling case yet for the Academy’s Directors Branch to finally nominate its first Black woman. After being snubbed for “Selma” (although she became the first Black woman to receive a Golden Globe nod), we’ve seen the branch continuously pass on critically acclaimed and respected filmmakers including Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”). It’s time to rectify the omission. If it’s not now, then I fear they will never do it.
The drama is brought to life exquisitely by the anchoring performance of Ellis-Taylor. Surpassing her Oscar-nominated work as Venus and Serena Williams’ fierce mother in “King Richard” (2021), her internalized and heartbreaking turn stands as the finest of her career. It would be egregious to see any best actress lineup without the inclusion of her powerfully moving performance. In fact, it’s strong enough to even consider the possibility of following in the footsteps of Halle Berry, the first and only Black woman to win for “Monster’s Ball” (2001). With such a difficult role, that has narration and reaction moments, she navigates it with precision and the utmost skill.
Her former “King Richard” co-star Jon Bernthal has a brief but loving role as Isabel’s husband Brett. Also effective, and a prospect for best supporting actress is Niecy Nash-Betts as Marion, Isabel’s cousin, who infuses charming one-line zingers and a needed lens into the character’s personal story. Nash-Betts will likely get an added boost in January when she (most likely) wins an Emmy for Netflix’s “Dahmer.”
Veteran actress Audra McDonald delivers her second one-scene wonder this year, making the most of her moment in one crucially memorable monologue. The other scene is in George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” with Colman Domingo, which is also screening at TIFF.
DuVernay knows how to assemble a team of artisans that are equally worthy of being nominated. Composer Kris Bowers’ tender music only elevates the movie’s most emotional scenes while editor Spencer Averick makes every scene feel vital to the story. What’s surprising is the director’s choice to recruit Emmy-nominated D.P. Matthew J. Lloyd (“Fargo”) whose smooth movement and intimate framework stand tall in the adult drama genre this year.
I pray the Academy, and the industry, don’t shut this film and its artists out, resting on fear of confronting the truth of our society. If anything, it can teach us how to be better to one another. No matter what, this will be a tricky one to steer.
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