Ephraim Asili calls his first feature-length film a remix of La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 mélange of Maoist politics among idealistic young Parisians. With energy and wit, he achieves his goal of creating “a critique and an homage at the same time,” but you don’t need to be familiar with the earlier work to appreciate The Inheritance. It stands solidly on its own as a dynamic inquiry into revolutionary culture and Black identity, not to mention the challenge of living with roommates.
The New Wave auteur’s movie was fueled by one generation’s rejection of another: “We must be different from our parents,” a character declares. Asili’s story, on the other hand, is all about honoring the lives and work of ancestors. The inheritance of the title is, on the most basic level, the house in which the West Philadelphia-set story unfolds. On a wider scale the film is concerned with the still-vibrant music, art and philosophy of those who came before, and the shared experience, through the decades, of outrage against injustice.
Twenty-something Julian (Eric Lockley) is moving into his late grandmother’s house and clearing out most of its contents, with the crucial exception of her books and LPs — a tangible and tantalizing archive, most of it work by Black artists and writers. He invites his partner, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), to move in with him, and at her suggestion they build a collective household, calling it the House of Ubuntu, a name drawn from a Zulu phrase expressing the value of interconnectedness.
A charismatic cast portrays the members of the nascent collective, with Chris Jarrel and Julian Rozzell Jr. (Boardwalk Empire), as two of the more unruly residents, providing especially welcome laughs and jolts of friction. Drawing upon his own experience, years earlier, in a collective, Asili is attuned to the spirited clashes and the mix of optimism, earnestness and an occasional dash of absurdity in the struggle toward consensus.
And he offers sly glances at the intricacies of class and race. A conversation between Gwen and Stephanie (Aniya Picou) references a fictitious movie called Negro Doppelganger, the centerpiece of Steph’s date-gone-wrong with a white woman.
Though most of the film was shot in a studio in upstate New York, the director uses West Philadelphia exteriors, murals and storefront signs in particular, to strong effect. He deepens the story’s sense of place with powerful readings by two Philadelphia-based poets, Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker. And Asili devotes 20 minutes of the feature to the story of MOVE, the separatist group whose Philadelphia compound was bombed in 1985 by the police. Archival footage is well chosen, and three MOVE members — the long-incarcerated couple Debbie and Michael Africa Sr. and their son Michael Jr., the subjects of the recent documentary 40 Years a Prisoner — appear in the film, speaking to the household.
Such lessons, from visitors as well as residents, are an integral part of life in the collective. One member, Patricia (Nyabel Lual), offers a workshop in Nuer, a language spoken in South Sudan. Asili frames this session with typical pizazz, bringing life to something as basic as a chalkboard presentation. Through it all, he deftly employs an exquisite jazz score featuring tracks by Sun Ra and Byard Lancaster, avant-gardists associated with Philadelphia. There’s also some terrific jamming by Rozzell’s character, on drums, and one played by Timothy Trumpet Jr. who’s never without his shades or his horn.
It might be something of a paradox that, in a film centered on a collective, Asili handles the lion’s share of behind-the camera jobs. But his contributions as writer, DP, editor, production designer lend the production a handmade sensibility; at its heart is the curation of a living archive.
The set he designed (at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) takes its cues from Godard’s stylized visual language, with its prominent use of onscreen text and its meta slants on performance. (A poster for La Chinoise figures prominently in the communal kitchen.) Even so, Asili conjures his own world, beginning with the bright, saturated colors of the painted walls. The photographs, magazine covers and posters that his characters hang on those walls are an iconography of the pre-Digital Age. In text and imagery, the film invokes familiar activists — Steve Biko, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde — but also lesser-known figures, or at least lesser known to this white American. (I’ve looked them up; the film’s pedagogy extends beyond the screen.)
Hardly lesser known, Shirley Chisholm is among the people whose images grace the walls of the House of Ubuntu. Even better, Asili has found a rare clip from her 1972 presidential campaign. It’s electrifying. “Don’t let people continue to use you and manipulate you,” she tells the women in her audience. To a reporter, she explains her belief in the necessity of coalition building: “You can’t change the system by ego-tripping.”
The Inheritance possesses a far more evolved sense of gender politics than Godard’s 50-year-old film. There’s no shortage of eye-rolling by the female characters as they listen to the men’s protestations. But the movie is never doctrinaire; Asili is interested in personalities, foibles and droll realities as well as political theory. With an unexpected note of ambivalence, the final moments find the collective’s ideals — tribal traditions of community and the extended family — entangled in the messy unpredictability of life at its most intimate.
Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Cast: Aurielle Akerele, Chris Jarrel, Michael A. Lake, Eric Lockley, Nyabel Lual, Nozipho Mclean, Aniya Picou, Julian Rozzell Jr., Timothy Trumpet Jr., Debbie Africa, Michael Africa Sr., Michael Africa Jr., Ursula Rucker, Sonia Sanchez
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, production designer, casting director: Ephraim Asili
Producers: Ephraim Asili, Vic Brooks