The first feature written and directed by Ephraim Asili, “The Inheritance” is both a bravely eccentric throwback and very much its own man, with its own beating heart. If there’s a Venn diagram overlap between lovers of Black cinema, radical Panther-style communalism, and fans of French New Wave enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard — well, this movie lives there. A fascinating entry in the African-American film canon, it’s currently available as a virtual screening via the Brattle.
“The Inheritance” is experimental only by today’s constricted standards. In style and look, it owes a great deal to Godard’s 1967 film “La Chinoise,” about a fractious Maoist collective in Paris, and in case you doubt that, there’s a huge poster for the film on the wall here. (For what it’s worth, Godard was in turn adapting Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed.”) The setting is West Philadelphia, where Julian (Eric Lockley) has turned his late grandmother’s home into the communal House of Ubuntu, inviting in a varied group of Black activists and musicians to live, work, and practice while deepening their consciousness and understanding of history.
The Philly setting isn’t an accident. A solid middle portion of “The Inheritance” becomes a documentary tutorial on the 1985 MOVE bombing, when city police dropped an incendiary device on the Black liberationist group and killed six adults and five children. Asili (who himself spent time in a similar community) repurposes archival news footage and then brings on three MOVE survivors to speak to the group. There are also illuminating and sometimes exhilarating sidebars on congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and other foundational figures of the movement, as well as spoken-word performances and musical numbers. The line between fiction and nonfiction, drama and lesson, is playfully demolished throughout.
Here the through-line to the past is both historical and personal. A number of sequences feature Julian and housemates riffling through grandmother’s collection of books and LPs, a veritable library of the struggle nationally and internationally, in word and voice. I had no idea so many figures of the Black Power era had recorded spoken-word albums, but Asili’s grandma seems to have owned them all. Among other things, “The Inheritance” is a bibliography shot in 16mm.
The walls are painted in eye-popping primary colors, and slogans and quotes are written on the walls — more nods to Godard. The interactions among the characters have an earnest improvisational nature. But if the vibe Asili establishes is one of engaged agitprop, it’s not without a sense of humor. The debates between Julian and his girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), are sly takedowns in which the former is severely overmatched, and the presence of Julian’s friend Rich (Chris Jarrell), who mostly needs a place to crash and couldn’t care less about politics, is a reality check and a source of comedy.
But the warmth and continuity are tempered by a sense of impatience and sometimes even rage, as when the house drummer Old Head (Julian Rozzell Jr.) explodes at the rest of the group for sitting around talking praxis while Black people are dying in the streets. At times the director tries to do too much and doesn’t follow through, promising a reading by the poet and cultural elder Sonia Sanchez that never happens. (Instead, we get a fire-breathing performance by spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker, and that’s plenty.) But Asili’s overreach is admirable and even necessary, and for all its rough edges — indeed, because of them — “The Inheritance” is a welcome reminder of film’s flexibility as a medium of protest, a vessel of cultural history, and an agent of change.
Written and directed by Ephraim Asili. Starring Eric Lockley, Nozipho Mclean, Julian Rozzell Jr., Ursula Rucker. Available as a virtual screening via the Brattle. 100 minutes. Unrated.