Cinematic magic in a West Philly collective

Grasshopper Film presents Ephraim Asili’s ‘The Inheritance’

3 minute read
A conversation inside Ubuntu House. (Image courtesy of Grasshopper Film.)
A conversation inside Ubuntu House. (Image courtesy of Grasshopper Film.)

I can almost guarantee that The Inheritance doesn't look much like any other movie you've ever seen.

The new film, available now through virtual cinemas, is the feature directorial debut of Ephraim Asili, a 41-year-old Montgomery County native and former Philadelphia resident. Asili based the film on his time living in an all-Black socialist collective in West Philadelphia.

Ubuntu House

The film depicts such a collective of artists and activists, known as Ubuntu House. One young man named Julian (Eric Lockley) inherited the house from his grandmother, and has decided to turn it into a collective comprising nine Black people living together, and engaged in nearly nonstop discussion and debate over racism, philosophy, politics, and literature.

That last one is especially important, because it's hard to remember a movie in which books played a bigger role. We see characters reading the works of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, and many others.

The house really is a fantastic location. The walls are solid blue, yellow, or red.

The pandemic scuttled plans to film on location in Philadelphia—the film was shot in a studio in Troy, New York, in a production that took four days—but the exterior shots look authentic, including one of the Know Thyself Bookstore on 52nd Street.

Godard, Chisholm, Sanchez, Rucker

The filmmaker has said in interviews that, in addition to his own experiences, he took inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film La Chinoise, which depicted a group of Maoist students in Paris. In The Inheritance, the residents all come from different walks of Black life. They include Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), the woman Julian has been dating, and a childhood friend of his (Chris Jarrel). There’s also one older member of the collective (Julian Rozzell Jr.), known as "Old Head."

Continuing the theme of experimentation, the film is something of a fiction/documentary hybrid. Most of the action consists of actors conferring with one another, but on a few occasions, we see actual people, including Philly poets Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker, and multiple former members of MOVE, who visit the house and tell their stories. There's also some archival footage, including that of a speech by 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.

Worthwhile and exhilarating

That mixture is a hard thing to juggle, but Asili pulls it off. This adds to a widening body of cinematic depictions of MOVE that includes the documentaries Let the Fire Burn and last year's 40 Years a Prisoner. The subjects of the latter doc, Mike Africa Jr. and his parents, appear here as well, in a teach-in scene.

The Inheritance premiered last year on the festival circuit, and it’s now available to the public. It’s a worthwhile and often exhilarating examination of decades of Black intellectual and artistic tradition.

Image description: A still from The Inheritance shows three actors, two Black men and a Black woman, standing around a wooden kitchen counter having an animated discussion, a book on the counter between them. The wall behind them is yellow and colorful kente cloth-style fabric covers the window.

What, When, Where

The Inheritance. Written and directed by Ephraim Asili. Available to stream through virtual cinemas nationwide, including Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Lightbox Film Center and cinéSPEAK. For more information, visit the Grasshopper Film website.

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