Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Grasshopper Film will release it in virtual cinemas on Friday, March 12.
Artist Ephraim Asili describes his feature debut “The Inheritance” as a “speculative re-enactment” of his tenure in a West Philadelphia Black Marxist collective, which is putting it modestly. This experimental, quasi-documentary meta movie bends genres, time, and space to create a shape-shifting kaleidoscope of Blackness that’s challenging to behold as a whole, but illuminating in its parts, and often educational without ever feeling too dense.
Shot in buzzing 16mm and balanced off with archival news footage, voiceovers, and interviews, “The Inheritance” establishes a documentary framework, only to break it down entirely. At the center of the movie’s nonfiction leanings is MOVE, a Black activist group founded in 1972 that was, in 1985, the victim of a police bombing after the organization was deemed a terrorist organization by Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor.
The parallels to the year 2020 are obvious, but Asili never beats that over your head. And he doesn’t have to. The police brutality witnessed this year and in past ones is history repeating itself; the story tells itself. The bombing killed 11 members of the collective, including leader John Africa, while the resulting fire spread throughout the neighborhood and destroyed dozens of homes.
Infusing this documentary scaffold is a scripted drama staged by Asili centered on a young man, Julian (Eric Lockley), who inherits a sprawling, multi-story house from his grandmother, and decides to, along with his girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), refashion the property into a hub for a Black liberationist movement. A poster spotted in one scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise,” the French director’s 1967 Dostoevsky-inspired story of a group of young Maoist terrorists in Paris, sets the tone for what Asili wants to achieve.
The jagged editing is certainly Godardian on its own, parceling out an alternative canon of Black artists and activists, with cutaways to book jackets, magazines, and records containing the works of Black iconoclasts. Some of the materials on display include readings from Julius K. Nyerere’s “Essays on Socialism,” and highlights from the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker, who make appearances to read their words. This vast media collection is part of what Julian has been bequeathed by his grandmother, hence the titular “inheritance.” It’s about physical belongings and remembrances left behind, but also about a legacy handed off from ancestors to the next generation of people fighting for Black lives.
However, those looking for a cogent syllabus here won’t find it; instead, Asili invites you to do the labor of discovery yourself after the movie’s over. In a moment where Black reading lists are being widely circulated, Asili’s is a kind of postmodern collage of the same, organized less by theme or time period than by the whims of his imagination. “The Inheritance” is a hard to grasp from moment to moment, which gives it a certain aesthetic thrill but also makes it somewhat impenetrable. Asili isn’t interested in pandering or holding your hand, and as refreshing as that is, it occasionally threatens to lock the movie into obscurity. That probably speaks more to the untrained viewer’s ignorance to Black touchstones largely left forgotten by white-dominated history than anything else, but the all-Black cast of characters in the film-within-the-film is also learning along the way, too.
Visually, “The Inheritance” is alive, drunk off the colors and textures of West Philadelphia: its denizens, street murals, the deep history of African American life and Black contributions to the cultural pantheon. But despite the seriousness of the subject, the approach remains wry and irreverent throughout. The dynamic between the residents of their bustling West Philadelphia lodgings makes for an relatable portrait of what it’s like to live with roommates trying to achieve philosophical unity about everything from chores to bathroom-sharing to the no-shoes-in-the-house policy in addition to all the politics. The acting isn’t always convincing, but that’s part of the charm of the film, which keeps blurring the line between reality and fiction as it comments on the nature of performance itself as an always-evolving act happening in real time. While Asili has constructed an ambitious and often unsettling narrative, it doubles as a joyous celebration of Blackness, and an invitation for all audiences to contemplate their own inheritance.
“The Inheritance” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.