Director Ava DuVernay’s latest film “Origin” debuted this week to passionate yet polarizing reviews. The ambitious historical drama aims to examine the origins of systemic racism in America through the lens of a fictional early 20th century anthropologist named Dr. Sandra Bland. While some critics praised the film’s bold narrative and visual craft, others argued it bites off more than it can chew.
“Origin” currently holds a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 132 reviews. This indicates generally favorable reviews, though not quite as acclaimed as DuVernay’s previous films like “Selma” and “13th.”
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, where indieWire critic Eric Kohn called it “DuVernay’s most ambitious work yet.” Roger Ebert.com featured an interview with DuVernay, where she said her goal was to “provoke necessary discomfort” when portraying America’s dark history.
However, news headlines about the early reviews described them as “mixed” and “divisive but well-crafted.”
Praise for the Performances and Filmmaking
Much of the critical raves focused on lead actress Aunjanue Ellis‘ moving performance as Dr. Bland. DuVernay has repeatedly praised Ellis’ ability to capture her character’s intellect and passion. The Hollywood Reporter printed an interview with Ellis where she discusses the years of preparation for the role.
Richard Roeper called Ellis “simply astounding – she holds the screen with gravitas and grace.” Other critics like DeAsia Paige focused on Taylor Simone, who plays Dr. Bland’s daughter Tianna, calling her scenes “equally riveting.”
The Globe & Mail said DuVernay succeeds in building “suspense and revelation based on poring through dusty academic archives.”
Criticism on Length, Scope and Messaging
However, many critics felt the sprawling 2 1⁄2 hour historical epic tried to cover too much ground.
The Washington Post’s review said it was “overlong, overstuffed and threatens to collapse from the weight of DuVernay’s admittedly noble ambitions.” Newsday echoed this, saying “the pieces don’t fully connect” even if the filmmaking craft is strong.
Salon.com’s review was negative, saying the overarching message about systemic racism feels “shoehorned in” instead of developing naturally through the plot. However, Texas Monthly strongly disagreed in its counter-review, calling the thematic complexity “carefully threaded throughout.”
The historical figure of Dr. Bland herself was also debated. While AwardsWatch praised Ellis for playing Bland as “both ahead of her time yet flawed,” ScreenAnarchy’s review argued Bland serves more as a “mouthpiece for talking points about racism and oppression over the decades.”
Will Audiences Turn Out?
It remains to be seen how general audiences respond to the film, which BoxOfficePro predicts may play as “too niche for casual moviegoers.” However, producer Oprah Winfrey has been heavily promoting the film, which is expected to boost its profile.
Early tracking forecasts the film making $16-19 million domestically its opening weekend. DuVernay’s previous films have often shown strong legs after building word-of-mouth buzz, so the ultimate box office will depend on audience reactions.
It faces competition from more commercial new releases like “Shotgun Wedding” and “The Last Orphans,” but is well-positioned as a unique option for adult moviegoers. With Academy Awards buzz already mounting for Ellis and DuVernay, “Origin” seems likely to remain a hot cultural talking point regardless of its financial fortunes.
A New High Point for Black Women Directors
The Variety review placed “Origin” as DuVernay’s new career highlight, cementing her status as one of America’s premier contemporary directors.
NAACP Image Awards host Tonya Mosley cheered the film as a new high point for Black women helming big budget, ambitious films in Hollywood. It forms a recent trend alongside films like “The Woman King,” “Nanny” and “Till.”
The Grio further noted that DuVernay insisted on an all Black department heads, continuing her mission articulated to The Hollywood Reporter to open more leadership opportunities for people of color in the film industry.
So while the critical verdict on “Origin” may be mixed, it cements DuVernay as a groundbreaking voice in contemporary cinema. The debates around the film promise to ignite wider conversations on addressing systemic inequalities in society.
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