What inheritances of the past sustain the present and carry us forward? This question is staged in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, an immersive, “speculative reenactment” of the filmmaker and DJ’s own years in a Black radical collective in West Philadelphia. Shot on Super 16mm, the film abstains from being precious or pristine in favor of a messier and far more compelling commitment to dialogue with the world beyond the frame. The collaborative production, which involved non-actors along with professionals, whose theatrical delivery and breaking of the fourth wall lend the impression of an ongoing rehearsal. Asili’s first feature bears a quality of incompletion, an ethical statement rather than a technical failing. A playful film with a political backbone, The Inheritance is a rare work that makes present the myriad histories of Black liberatory struggle while energizing new possibilities for collectivity.
Citing a tapestry of influences, including the writings of Stuart Hall, the cinemas of Robert Bresson and John Akomfrah, William Greaves’s film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, and the scattered editing style of the French New Wave, The Inheritance is what Asili calls a “remix” of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 satire La Chinoise. The film also builds on Asili’s previous work, notably his Diaspora Suite (2011-2017), a deeply personal five-part series which investigates and documents the tied histories and futures of people of African descent across the globe.
For his latest, Asili begins with the titular inheritance: Julian (Eric Lockley) is left a house in West Philadelphia by his late grandmother — a home populated with objects infused with revolutionary potential, from a trunk piled with books by Malcolm X and Alice Walker to records of speeches by Nikki Giovanni and Stokely Carmichael. The political conviction of the film is indexed by these objects, which also include newspapers, photographs and posters. Asili crafts and places on screen the system of knowledge from which his film emerges, offering the viewer a glimpse of the film’s genesis, rather than shielding that process.
The inherited home is baptized the House of Ubuntu, a communal space for Julian, his girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) and other friends and comrades. Their mission is articulated by alternating quotes on a large chalkboard, including, notably, Kwame Nkrumah’s: “Practice without thought is blind; thought without practice is empty.” In the House of Ubuntu, residents read aloud from revolutionary works and participate in gatherings aimed at re-thinking and re-organizing the world. Patricia (Nyabel Lual), another resident, even offers a workshop on Nuer, a language spoken in South Sudan. Throughout, the film evinces a sharp reflection on the intimate stakes of gentrification and class antagonism, which persist even in radical collectives. Asili pays careful attention to the banal hiccups of creating new social formations, such as adjustments in everyday language and chore schedules.
The Inheritance both documents and models what it means to participate in a project of cultural re-education. An exterior shot of the sign for Know Thyself Bookstore precedes a scene of Julian reading from Julius K. Nyerere’s Essays on Socialism, a text which argues against capitalism, private property, and colonialism and in favor of a syncretism between certain pre-colonial traditional structures and modern African socialism. “Our first step therefore would be to re-educate ourselves,” Nyere writes. As Julian reads, Gwen staples a photo of Shirley Chisholm to the wall, before the film slips into archival footage, showing the politician discussing the need to build “people power.” This deft sequencing organizes an ambitious but unforced amalgamation of different geographies and histories of Black liberation struggle.
Nimbly weaving together a local Philadelphia history and a Pan-Africanist, Black internationalist framework The Inheritance is imbued with a musical agility. It honors the importance of learning as an ongoing process, always passing between intergenerational hands.
The Inheritance (2020) opens in virtual cinemas on March 12.