“The Black community” is a favored platitude among journalists, though it means very little. In fact, Black people have formed communities—plural— amongst and beyond themselves, of vastly differing personal and political outlooks, for as long as “Blackness” has existed. Particularly in our increasingly atomized modern society, communities don’t just happen by virtue of race, ethnicity, or social reality—they are formed. Director Ephraim Asili’s first feature, The Inheritance, opening in virtual cinemas March 12, inventively develops this idea of intentionality, or what we choose to make of the situations we’re living in.
The film, set in 2019 Philadelphia, takes place almost entirely inside of a Black artists’ collective called The House of Ubuntu. A young man called Julian (Eric Lockley) recently inherited the house from his grandmother. The walls are bright primary and secondary colors—red, blue, purple, green. While moving his things in, Julian impulsively asks the young woman he’s casually dating, Gwen (South African actress Nozipho Mclean), to join him. Julian is a film lover (he cries watching Tarkovsky) and a Pollyannish idealist. Gwen is pursuing a degree at Temple University; she moves through the world with a sense of confidence and authority that Julian clearly struggles to embody. The push and pull between them comes to animate the energy of the house.
After Gwen begins living in the house, she has a conversation with her friend Stephanie (Aniya Picou), a barista who ambivalently reckons with gentrification in Philadelphia and expresses jealousy over Gwen’s ability to afford a college education. Their discussion leads Gwen to push the house in a new direction. It becomes a cooperative (people living together in an organized and co-productive manner), then a collective (which requires shared ideas and goals beyond domestic responsibility), with several new Black housemates joining over time. They play jazz music, read radical Black plays like King Leopold’s Ghosts, learn the Sudanese language Nuer from housemate Patricia (Nyabel Lual), host real-life members of Philadelphia’s historic MOVE organization for a teach-in, create a public library in the living room, and decide the inner workings of the community through a process called “reaching consensus.” Many of these sequences have a simple yet emphatic mise-en-scène, with the camera focusing on a large blackboard spanning the living room wall and dons chalk-written quotes from Black artists and revolutionaries like Audre Lorde and Thomas Sankara.
But the house isn’t only an oasis of patient radical awakening. Julian’s childhood friend Rich (Chris Jarrel) doesn’t come to the House of Ubuntu with similar radical political commitments; he arrives after being kicked out of his mom’s home for selling prescription pills. A dark-skinned street-smart, unpredictable hanger-on, he clashes with Gwen, a college-educated, militant, light-skinned radical. In the middle of these arguments is Julian, who is generally passive as a friend and apologetic as a partner. Jarrel, Lockley, and McLean are expertly cast, embodying in both small and exaggerated movements how people so tightly linked together by experience can differ so greatly in how they move through the world.
It’s a familiar clash. Yet Asili builds these characters up and out of cliché by allowing his actors to directly address the camera on occasion, stepping outside of the narrative to speak honestly about their interests, inspirations, and curiosities. Archival footage of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for President of the United States, and photos of revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah, and a Harriet Tubman-themed reading by Black Arts Movement poet Sonia Sanchez form a virtual library animating the House of Ubuntu’s intellectual development.
The film is based on Asili’s experience living in a Black Marxist collective when he was younger—an especially intimate way to form a community. In a shared living space, the attention to survival, to daily maintenance and care, never ceases; questions thought to be merely individual (what should I eat today, how should I spend my time) are influenced by the presence of others. Consequences, too, become more immediate. And though such communion has its moments of beauty and tenderness, it is not merely a romantic affair. Even Gwen and Julian’s relationship takes on a dutiful cast, as we see them spend their alone time arguing about the needs of the house and its members. The actors take on these arguments with a theatrical expressiveness—they play to the back of the house as if to punctuate the stakes of such commitments at a young age.
As The Inheritance unfolds, Rich becomes less skeptical about the house even as he makes a series of gaffes related to it. He’s immediately shut down after he suggests inviting strippers to a block party; he accidentally spills someone’s jar of spirulina all over the kitchen, then lies about it. In many ways, Rich represents most of us, who would struggle to live cooperatively with six-and-counting roommates in a system that appears primarily to benefit the strongest-willed and most firmly integrated members.
Gwen seems to always have the right answers, to be the driving force for the identity of the house, even though decisions are made by consensus. No matter how open he becomes to learning from others, Rich doesn’t quite fit in. He bristles at not being able to assert his tastes or ideas that come from outside—and in the film’s actions we see no one directly confront him about this discord. Hiring sex workers is unacceptable; so is firearms training, which housemate Old Head (Julian Rozzell Jr.) recommends in the wake of his sister’s murder. The women of the house get to determine its rhythms—a contentious idea that nevertheless helps realign some of the more central power imbalances in sharing a home, the film argues.
Asili doesn’t seem to be interested in telling us whether or not such an enterprise can last. In fact, ephemerality is generally welcomed at the House of Ubuntu; outsiders can venture in, create messes, then leave. In that way, the collective becomes both an accomplice of and a challenger to the idea of Blackness itself. Blackness isn’t a fixed identity or static community—it’s ever shifting, retracting, then proliferating, coming in and out of communion with itself. The Black radical tradition, specifically, says that by bridging past and present, such chaos can organize and revolutionize itself. The Inheritance stages an encouraging attempt at re-invention.
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