Review: A Black commune weighs the past, present and future in ‘The Inheritance’

Chris Jarrell, from left, Nozipho Mclean and Eric Lockley in the movie "The Inheritance."
Chris Jarrell, from left, Nozipho Mclean and Eric Lockley in the movie “The Inheritance.”
(Grasshopper Film)

What might a collectively authored Black future look like? For creative polymath Ephraim Asili, it is one that knows its past as well as its present.

With his feature-length debut film “The Inheritance,” the West Philadelphia-raised, New York-based filmmaker presents a reflectively avant-garde portrait of the connective threads between community making, historical archives and political awakening. Shaping an easy bricolage of what Asili refers to as a “speculative reenactment” of his time spent living in a Black radical collective, the Black Arts Movement, and the MOVE Black liberation group, “The Inheritance” resists convention in its easeful movements between documentary, fictive narrative and cultural archaeology.

The film centers these gestures around its core narrative: a fictional grouping of Black folks collectively living and learning alongside one another. A young man named Julian (Eric Lockley) has inherited a West Philadelphia row home following the passing of his grandmother. While moving into the home, he is eager to take stock of the almost innumerable records and books his grandmother had collected and, in the midst of sharing his excitement, invites his girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) to live with him. Gwen, who possesses a more shrewd perception of his grandmother’s vast collection, notes the importance of the art objects, texts and other Black cultural ephemera that Julian is perhaps too eager to discount. In many ways she is the origin of activation of this space and the people and things living within it, and soon enough the couple is sharing their home with several other Black artists, educators and activists.

Julian Rozzell Jr. in the movie "The Inheritance."
(Grasshopper Film)

The commune forms under the name House of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term designating the universal boundedness of humanity, and succinctly names its shared goals as the preservation and self-care of Black people. While most of the housemates share a broad like-mindedness — not only in their interests, but in their desire for an active political education as well as the social need to operate through the principle of consensus — Julian’s childhood friend Rich (Chris Jarell), who moved into the home without taking part in the collective’s interview process, emerges as a figure in relief. Having been kicked out of his mother’s home for selling prescription drugs, Rich’s knowledge and experience is lived rather than read. He is perceptive yet glib, facetious more than he is self-serious, and often clashes with Gwen, whose radical politics are inextricable from her class positioning and the privileges her lighter skin affords her.

The home is where these individuals become mutable, mobilized, and in some ways, intellectually and emotionally produced (or even reproduced) by both one another and their surroundings. Individual livedness becomes amorphous and adaptive as it forms itself to the needs and desires of the collective. It is a study of Black socialism made all the more real for its required intimacy and dedicated literalism. The cultural artifacts alongside which the house lives likewise inform this synergistic harmony of ideas; their presence denotes not only their status as a cherished record of Black political history but a site of contact and action for those who share space with them.

It is in these exercises of contrast, as well as repetition and continuation, that “The Inheritance” allows for more complex and lived-in ideas to take shape. Texts, plays and poetry are read aloud by its actors and directed, strikingly, toward its viewer; we hear the same words and sounds recast multiple times within the same take, and within the space of that repetition new relationships, relativities and meanings arise. We see a breadth of stunning archival footage, from the speeches of Shirley Chisholm (the first Black major-party candidate to run for president of the United States, in 1972) to footage of the violent police bombing of MOVE in 1985, and are offered the opportunity to see many of these cultural moments through to the present day as the House of Ubuntu hosts MOVE members Debbie and Michael Africa as well as renowned poet, activist and scholar Sonia Sanchez.

“The Inheritance,” in this sense and in many others, is a natural realization of many of filmmaker Asili’s ongoing stylistic and thematic occupations. It is didactic without losing its sense of organicism; it is radical without losing its sense of humor; it is intentional in its visual and formal design without flattening itself to the status of aesthetic image emptied of its politics. It is, in all ways, a reminder that any radical future must trust in the transformative potential of the communion between past and present.

'The Inheritance'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, March 12, Laemmle Virtual Cinema and Acropolis Cinema