There’s a really noble idea at the core of The Inheritance, one of the smaller and more unique titles playing at the 58th New York Film Festival. However, while diving in and learning about Black art, culture, and overall history is something almost everyone can benefit from, the way it’s depicted here leaves something to be desired. Sporadic moments of vibrancy and creativity are stuck between long stretches that feel repetitive or somewhat undercooked. It’s hardly a bad movie, but it’s more of an interesting failure than anything else, and that’s a shame. The ingredients here could have really made for something worth taking notice of. Unfortunately, nobility only gets you so far.
The Inheritance wants to be an avant-garde call to action. NYFF is a great place for that, too. It just never quite comes together as designed. Obviously, the small scale for this independent title necessitated certain choices, but it never pays off. Slowly, but surely, a sense of disappointment creeps in, while the hope for redemption still hangs in the air. It doesn’t happen, but there’s still something here that keeps you from completely dismissing what you’re seeing. All in all, it’s not what you’re seeing that’s unsatisfying, but how it’s being shown to you.
Forgoing any true plot, aside from a set up, this is a mix of documentary and drama, often blurring the lines throughout. A basic description would be that a young man named Julian (Eric Lockley) has inherited his grandmother’s house in West Philadelphia. Seeing potential in it, as well as utilizing the encouragement of his strong-willed girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), begins to transform the residence. First, they move a box of his grandmother’s books. Then, other people arrive. Eventually, it turns into a Black socialist collective, one called The House of Ubuntu, where an entire community is welcomed as family.
Alternating between moments between characters and a history lesson about John Africa of the MOVE organization, there’s also other elements at play like archival footage of activist Shirley Chisholm. Through it all, there’s a sense that an attempt is being made to inspire both a creative spark as well as a call to pay more attention to cultural history. The narrative does have a resolution, but it’s very much an after the fact sort of a thing.
There’s a dedication here from the cast, but they don’t really leave an impression over the course of the indie’s running time. That’s more a flaw of the lack of much in the way of a screenplay, but Eric Lockley and Nozipho Mclean suffer for it. The same goes for supporting players like Aurielle Akerele, Chris Jarrell, Nyabel Lual, Aniya Picou, Julian Rozzell Jr., and Timothy Trumpet Jr., who make up the rest of the house residents.
Filmmaker Ephraim Asili has grand ambitions on a small scale here. The mix of storytelling devices is certainly a choice with potential, but he can’t pull it off. The Inheritance would have been better served if Asili had made a full on John Africa documentary, or gone the other way and made a drama, more in the vibe of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. This in-between is a true no-man’s-land for the director.
The Inheritance is close to being something, it truly is. With a great platform here at the 2020 New York Film Festival, it’ll be seen by a solid amount of folks. Had it been a bit more cinematic, this could have been a fascinating introduction to an interesting new storyteller. Asili is still someone to watch out for, but this is a flawed effort that can’t distinguish itself at NYFF this year.