The Inheritance opens with a static image: A diagram of a notched wheel labeled, “African/American Ritual Mode.” Under the wheel, a legend depicts the icons for preachers, sacred images, congregation, chorus, and elders. All icons are represented in the diagram, and all are in their place.
Then a cut to another static shot, this one of a neighborhood street: The sign on the left says, “Do Not Enter,” but the mural on the right says, “What’s Mine Is Yours.” And despite their conflicting messages, both are painted in a recognizable vibrant red. There’s a lot you might recognize in The Inheritance, and more you might not, but these upfront images make no bones about what’s to follow. From here on out, you’re in Ephraim Asili’s hands.
Written, produced, directed, shot, and edited by Asili, The Inheritance is as composed as that rigorous diagram and as conflicted as that street sign and mural. The story opens with Julian (Eric Lockley); he’s just inherited his grandmother’s West Philadelphia home and wants his sort-of girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), to move in with him. She wants to turn the home into a collective for revolutionaries. Julian agrees; he’s also inherited a trunk of books and political speeches from his grandmother, and they charge the activism coursing through his blood. But not entirely, as later scenes humorously show, Julian defaults to privacy and tidiness while his housemates think of revolution. They rename the house “The House of Ubuntu” (the Nguni Bantu word for “humanity”) and invite all to come.
Ubuntu becomes a revolving door for activists, artists, friends, you name it, and some of the funniest moments in the movie involve the complications of living in a collective. When Julian’s friend, Rich (Chris Jarell), asks if he can crash on the couch, Julian says yes, but he’ll have to bring it before the committee and put it to a vote. Asili films the scene in one locked-down master, letting Rich and Julian move in and out of the frame. It’s not the only scene Asili films that way, and they give The Inheritance the feeling of a stage play. And when you think you might be getting ahead of Asili, he takes one of those staged scenes and pulls back to reveal three characters running lines from a script.
There’s a lot of playfulness in The Inheritance, and Asili grabs a good deal from the films of Jean-Luc Godard: Particularly La Chinoise, which gets a shout-out via a large poster in the kitchen; 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with Asili replacing Raoul Coutard’s swirling cup of coffee with a glass of vegetable juice; and A Woman is a Woman, both in regards to The Inheritance’s primary color palette and the emphasis of couples reading books when they should be talking instead.
There are a lot of books in The Inheritance, and their titles and authors are always in focus. They’re like guides for the viewers. Asili uses history to do the same. Chief among them, members of MOVE, the Philadelphia-based Black separatist group, recounting the 1985 bombing of their home by the Philadelphia Police Department. The MOVE section is extensive and almost feels like a separate movie inside The Inheritance. It’s not the only section that feels self-contained, and they give the story the impression of a collage.
The Inheritance is an ambitious and messy movie, but the ideas contained are so expansive, there’s no way Asili could have held them within a tightly structured narrative. Instead, he goes for a free-flowing torrent of past and present colliding inside the mind and finds resonance.
The Inheritance (2020)
Written and directed by Ephraim Asili
Produced by Ephraim Asili, Vic Brooks
Starring: Eric Lockley, Nozipho Mclean, Chris Jarell, Aurielle Akerele, Michael A. Lake, Nyabel Lual, Aniya Picou, Timothy Trumpet Jr., Julian Rozzell Jr., Ursula Rucker
Grasshopper Film, Not rated, Running time 100 minutes, Opens March 12, 2021, at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series’ virtual theater.