Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Toward the end of The Inheritance, director Ephraim Asili holds on a shot that watches, imperturbably, a man straightening up a room. The young man is Julian (Eric Lockley), who has inherited a Philadelphia house from his grandmother and turned the joint into a 1960s-style headquarters for a Black collective. The night before, the place hosted a party/happening/open house, and when the shot begins, we realize it’s the morning after, and Julian must’ve drawn the day’s clean-up duties.
The shot holds for a few minutes as Julian picks things off the floor, moves the drum kit, discovers a dog sleeping behind something. He mutters to himself more than once. This scene is a fitting anti-climax for the film’s trajectory, as it captures the spirit of the movie overall: It’s formally challenging, sneakily funny, and it finds an interesting way to look at a room. It also contains the contradiction at the heart of the film’s humor, which is that as commendable as it is to found a political-action collective, somebody has to clean up the mess after the exciting stuff.
The Inheritance unfolds in as many disparate ways as Asili can squeeze into one movie. He acknowledges the influence of Jean-Luc Godard by placing a poster for La Chinoise in the kitchen, which means that a scene in which one roomie engages in some healthy juicing while positioned beneath the poster raises the question of whether Maoists would’ve achieved more if they’d had access to antioxidant smoothies. The Godardian gestures include direct address to the camera and the inclusion of a cascade of book covers and posters as cultural iconography, but Asili makes these gestures his own. At various points Asili leaves behind the fictional apparatus and brings in documentary elements, including period footage of Shirley Chisholm and Philadelphia’s MOVE organization, or testimonies from the surviving members of MOVE themselves, folded into the fictional world of the film.
Even giving this thumbnail description doesn’t capture the winning back-and-forth of the movie’s shifts from passable dramatic scenes (not all of the actors are on point, although maybe that’s part of the vibe) to illustrated lectures to poetry readings (Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker are in here, declaiming). It exists in a physical space of considerable dazzle, with walls painted shocking orange or yellow, and in a temporal space of slight vagueness (someone mentions 2019, but nobody uses a computer or has a cellphone).
The element that really ties The Inheritance together is that humor, which stays on a low boil throughout—notably in the person of Rich (Chris Jarell), who bums his way into the collective house more out of need than political commitment, and who is fond of pointing out that Julian seems just a little dominated by his (you should pardon the patriarchal expression) girlfriend, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean). There’s a superb bit about the house’s no-shoes-inside policy, which Julian desperately tries to re-brand with the positive-sounding “We Are a Shoeless House,” which, like so much else, ends up on a hand-written poster hung somewhere in the place. (La Chinoise had its share of sly comedy, too.) The blend of styles and moods on display here are consistently engaging, an antioxidant cocktail indeed.
March 19, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.