The Inheritance takes its viewers inside a West Philly group house where the housemates, nine Black liberationists, are constantly studying, listening, and reading.
One house member sits with a copy of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. In another scene, the camera pans over one of the bookshelves to show The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Invisible Man, and Fences, among other titles. The record collection includes The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, as read by Ossie Davis.
Much of The Inheritance, slated for virtual release Friday through Lightbox Film Center and cinéSPEAK in Philly, and other virtual cinemas nationally, shows its characters soaking up and processing lessons from the past. Each vintage reference was handpicked by Ephraim Asili, 41, who wrote and directed the movie.
“I knew I was shooting this film in the studio, I’d say, six months or so prior to shooting it,” explained Asili, who shot the film’s action in four and a half days in a Troy, N.Y., studio. “And so I just started, every day, kind of like grabbing stuff, grabbing stuff, thinking about how it would function on the set. And so every book, every record, every magazine, everything you see is something from my personal archive of things.”
Asili, who is from Roslyn in Montgomery County, based the movie on his formative years in West Philadelphia, when he was a young activist. The film’s Ubuntu House, based on a group that Asili was part of, becomes a liberationist collective after Julian, the lead character, inherits the home from his grandmother. Gwen, who Julian loves, starts thinking about collective living.
The house members form a reading room and welcome guests for teach-ins and readings. Julian reads from Ujamaa by former Tanzanian president Julius K. Nyerere. Ursula Rucker and Sonia Sanchez both appear as themselves in the film, sharing poetry.
The Inheritance is as much about freedom as it is about liberatory histories. It’s almost as if, through the curation of the books, records, and magazines, there are messages being communicated for the people watching.
“That’s like the element of the grandmother kind of leaving these breadcrumbs that are being found. And they’re almost getting to know her through it,” Asili, said over Zoom recently from Hudson, N.Y., sitting near his record collection. Asili is a DJ, and he’s also an assistant professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College. “It’s kind of like it’s her syllabus that she left behind that they’re discovering.”
When Asili wrote the script around 2017 and 2018, he was thinking of Black Lives Matter, but also, the media. Asili senses that the media has a way of making the old seem new, which, has made him wonder “about the million other things that happened.”
In the movie, Asili continued, “you also have a group of young activists that maybe aren’t connecting the dots all the time,” he said. “And so, for me, it [was] using this idea of the grandmother as a way of saying, we have to acknowledge this history of activism that’s already happened, and place our work in that context. And not try to say, ‘Well, they made these mistakes, and we’re going this way,’ but that it’s a continuum.”
Ubuntu’s members listen and politic in brightly painted rooms that Asili designed, hoping the kaleidoscope would make the house look less like a set, with tones that could flatter the actors’ complexions. The director, who makes significant use of archival footage of Shirley Chisholm and the MOVE organization, isn’t exactly sure why he made a film that spends as much time looking at history.
“I really would like to have some great story to tell, like a comic book character origin story,” he said. “But the reality is I really can’t figure it out, but that it’s something that just deeply concerns me. And it’s my first feature film, and [I wanted] to make my first feature film about the things that I care about the most.”
Asili first moved to West Philly at 20 after dropping out of Edinboro University in northwestern Pennsylvania in 2000. He recalls moving near Clark Park, and meeting members of the MOVE organization in the neighborhood. He developed a relationship with the group where they’d share time and break bread.
“Growing up in the area, I knew all the things that we all hear about MOVE from the media and all of that, but that was so far removed from my experience,” explained Asili, who lived in the neighborhood for about seven years.
“To this day, I have many things that I believe about life, and many things that have helped me get through hard times were things that I’ve learned from MOVE,” Asili continued.
MOVE taught him that everyone, even powerful folks, lives under the same sun and breathes the same air, something that makes him less shaken by politics even now, he said. “And so when it came time to make this film, it was kind of like, well, what was the sort of catalyst of us taking our activism to another level and being more serious at that time? It was our relationship with MOVE, in a lot a lot of ways, and I wanted to re-create that.”
Mike Africa Sr., Debbie Africa, and Mike Africa Jr. share their stories with Ubuntu in one of the film’s teach-ins. With a project that is both artistic and instructional, Asili said he thought of both, but the art first.
“Trying to find that balance is always like the goal,” Asili said. “Ultimately, it’s that these ideas stay in circulation. So it’s like, I’m trying to make work that people still want to see [in] 5, 10, 20 years.”
What was the inheritance for the filmmaker? At first, it was, after producing a series of shorts, seeing his first feature-length film as a Mount Everest.
“It was the mountaintop that I just had to kind of get to the summit of just to prove something to myself that I could do it,” said Asili, who shot the film in 2019.
Now that he’s made the climb, and the film will soon be released, what he’s inherited has changed. Now, he figures that the inheritance was the experience.