‘The Inheritance’ Review: Essay Film Makes Good on Debt to Radical Black Forebearers

In his first feature, Ephraim Asili revisits the rush and rhetoric of his time as a young man in a Philly collective.

The Inheritance
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

At the start of “The Inheritance” — an experimental film about the formation of a Black collective, set in the early ’90s — Julian (Eric Lockley) rummages through a wooden crate of books he found in the West Philadelphia row house his grandmother left him. In it is a trove of poetic and political thought circa the late ’60s and beyond: There’s Malcolm X and Alice Walker, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, as well as Charles Mingus and a stack of Ebony magazines.

In the next scene, Julian’s friend, maybe girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) helps him tug and shove the crate across the floor of the near empty abode. He asks her to move in. She reminds him that the last time they saw each other was at least a month ago. They’d gone to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice”;” he cried and grew quiet. No wonder they haven’t seen each other since. Even so, Gwen moves in, and in short order the house becomes a socially conscious collective flying the banner Ubuntu. (The Swahili word for “humanity” has been broadly interpreted to speak to an ethic of interdependence.)

In his fleet introduction of place and peeps, experimental filmmaker Ephraim Asili honors forerunners, stakes his claim to the vast terrain of Black thought, and teases an aesthetic that nods to French avant-gardist Chris Marker but all-out name-checks Jean-Luc Godard. Looming large over the activities in the house is a poster of Godard’s “La Chinoise,” his 1967 semi-comedic movie about a violence-embracing collective that’s itself a tease of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Demons.” Asili has likened “The Inheritance” to a DJ’d remix of Godard’s film.

If that dense pack of influencers doesn’t make you nervous, “The Inheritance” is worth the tussling. (A second viewing may even offer surer glimpses of the joy undulating beneath the cerebral.) Brainy, mannered, dryly amused, “The Inheritance” can appear willfully inexpert; the self-conscious acting feels both deliberate and the work of a director who hasn’t spent much time working with actors. But Asili dives confidently into big ideas — ideas as ideology, as wondrous inspiration, as both.

Gwen and Julian’s initial exchange becomes more amusing in retrospect. Joining the intentional household are queer feminist Stephanie (Aniya Picou), drum-kit-playing Old Head (Julian Rozzell Jr.), South Sudan immigrant Patricia (Nyabel Lual, an activist and a model), Janet (Aurielle Akerele), Mike (Michael A. Lake) and Jamel (Timothy Trumpet Jr.), who never removes his shades or appears without his trumpet. The outlier in the house is Julian’s childhood friend Rich, played with trickster energy by Chris Jarrel. He isn’t a truer believer, just a guy just in need of a place to lay his head.

The lion’s share of the action takes place in the row house, which Asili created in a black box theater. For Philly authenticity, he delivers redolent shots of a place of murals, storefronts and urban parks. “Action” isn’t actually apt. The movie is talk-talk-talk rich, and text-laden. Words appear on screen. A blackboard in a common room becomes the carrier of quotes from forebears, among them LGBTQ poet Audre Lorde; sociologist and poet Calvin Hernton; and Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah.

The filmmaker weaves his own story of time spent in a collective with sound bites, vigorously utilized text and compelling archival images. Footage of Shirley Chisholm breathes fire into a figure who seems from the vantage of decades mild-mannered if resolute. Yet the clips of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate — talking to a reporter about institutionalized power and the strategic building coalitions — show just how visionary and pragmatic she was. Another cache of images addresses the city’s 1985 bombing of MOVE’s home and headquarters, which destroyed 61 houses and killed 11, five of them children.

The collective of which Asili was a member modeled itself on some of MOVE’s nature-embracing tenets, and the director is transparent about his sympathies. Michael, Debbie and Michael Africa Jr. — stars and subject of last year’s documentary “40 Years a Prisoner” about the police raid of MOVE’s headquarters in ’78 — make poignant cameos here.

Unlike the collective in “La Chinoise,” there isn’t much haggling among the members here about the use of violence. One proposes bringing in a speaker who teaches gun skills. The women, in particular, object. An amusing scene about the house rule on the wearing of shoes underscores that in “The Inheritance” bickering is going to be over domestic space, not domestic terror.

As the Ubuntu collective gels, it’s worth remembering (with an indulgent smile perhaps) that when Mike asked Gwen to move in, she expressed doubt. Midway through the movie, she kind of rules the communal roost. As “The Inheritance” nears its denouement — a sweet gathering of music and poetry, featuring a melodic and simmering cameo by hometown spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker as herself — Mike gives a shout-out to the leadership of Black women, telling those gathered that the collective was Gwen’s doing.

Asili’s sound design is nuanced and commanding. His body of shorts attests to a keen and nimble affection for music and sound. (He made a concert/tribute doc about experimental musician Sun Ra and the arc of his Solar Arkestra after the passing of the bandleader.) Aided by sound supervisor Stephen McLaughin, Asili is a whiz here with found and crafted sound. It’s little surprise he also DJs.

‘The Inheritance’ Review: Essay Film Makes Good on Debt to Radical Black Forebearers

Reviewed online, Denver, Feb. 27, 2021. (In Toronto, Berlin film festivals.) Running time: 102 MIN.

  • Production: A Grasshopper Film release. Producers: Ephraim Asili, Vic Brooks.
  • Crew: Director, writer, editor: Ephraim Asili. Camera: Ephraim Asili.
  • With: Aurielle Akerele, Chris Jarrel, Michael A. Lake, Eric Lockley, Nyabel Lual, Nozipho Mclean, Aniya Picou, Julian Rozzell Jr., Timothy Trumpet Jr.