By Gerald Peary
In its celebration of current-day Black culture, and of the vitality of Black youth, The Inheritance is an optimistic work.
The Inheritance, directed by Ephraim Asili. Streaming at the Brattlite.
Hail Ephraim Asili, the most important African-American filmmaker since Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. His debut feature, The Inheritance, is thrillingly cast with fresh-faced, attractive young Black actors you’ve never seen on the screen before. The film is a virtuoso display of Asili’s talents, as he wrote, directed, edited, did the inventive 16mm camerawork, and provided the extraordinary production design.
Quite unusual for an African-American film, The Inheritance is a conscious borrowing from French New Wave Cinema, specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 La Chinoise, about a Paris commune of Maoist students preparing for the assassination of a foreign government official. As in Godard, Asili’s ensemble live collectively, in West Philadelphia rather than Paris, read left-wing texts, and argue political issues, and they are all bright, articulate, and, yes, damned good-looking. But, beyond a similar story, Asili was also taken with Godard’s insistence that a radical political film need be told radically, that traditional ways of storytelling, whether Hollywood or independent filmmaking, must be soundly rejected.
That’s why the Communist-red set (like in La Chinoise) is not a naturalistic one, but a place to hang photos from Black history as teaching tools. That’s why the cast break the fourth wall and address the film audience with political speeches, why the performance style is clearly Brechtian, anti-Stanislavski, with the actors occupying their characters and commenting on their characters at the same time.
But a major break from Godard is that Asili’s ensemble are mostly a pacifist lot, concerned with living in a healthy way rather than causing destruction or havoc. Only one of the group talks of having guns, though far more of a Second Amendment issue than wanting to shoot anyone. The biggest arguments of the commune are whether shoes should be allowed in their apartment, in what room to place their shared library, and who stole from the refrigerator another person’s supply of spirulina. The film is surprisingly free of anti-white invective or speeches denouncing racism. Instead, Asili’s strategy is simply to ignore the Caucasian world. There must be fifty book covers shown in the movie, from works of Toni Morrison to Angela Davis. Every single volume is by a Black writer.
In its celebration of current-day Black culture, and of the vitality of Black youth, The Inheritance is an optimistic work. But it’s African-American Philadelphia story is not only presenting the treasured local poet, Sonia Sanchez, reading a verse homage to Harriet Tubman. It’s reminding us, and informing us, of what we have buried and forgotten: the 1985 bombing from a helicopter of the headquarters of the MOVE black community by the Philadelphia police. The original newsreels are shown here in all their horror. Why doesn’t everyone in America know about this dreadful moment of racist injustice? Eleven people were killed, including five children. The Philadelphia Fire Department let the fire burn uncontrolled, until 65 homes in this African-American neighborhood were destroyed.
Asili’s choice of a Godardian broken narrative, with eruptions of Brechtian “alienation,” is what might be termed “experimental.” The director has noted in interviews that, except for William Greaves’ singular Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), he is practically alone in America as an African-American film avant-gardist. He has been much influenced by being a film graduate student at Bard College, where renowned experimentalists like Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Kelly Reichardt all taught, and where Asili is now on the faculty.
But who will watch his movie? It’s a fact that mainstream Black audiences, fed a lifetime of genre films, have been rarely cognizant of more serious, ambitious African-American cinema, including the excellent works of Barry Jenkins and Charles Burnett. My intuition is that Asili accepts a limited audience. He is aiming his film for educated Blacks, including university students, those who have a thirst to learn their history. And for them, The Inheritance is a brilliant, necessary work.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.