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Inside the Brilliant New Film ‘The Inheritance’

Writer-director Ephraim Asili wasn’t interested in making a ‘mad-as-hell’ film. He drew from his own experiences for the politically pointed hybrid movie that chronicles the inner workings of a Black collective

How do you change the world? When he was younger, Ephraim Asili (now in his early 40s) decided to be part of a collective. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was inspired by MOVE, the local Black liberation group that advocated, among other things, respect for nature and the animal kingdom, as well as an emphasis on communal living. “We were not exactly a Marxist collective,” Asili has said, “but we did work to share domestic and financial responsibilities equally. We also believed in many of the same social causes [as MOVE], like protecting the environment, social justice in terms of police brutality and the treatment of women, and political prisoner support.” 

Eventually, Asili left his collective, but its aims stayed with him as he turned his attention to filmmaking. About a decade ago, he started producing shorts that tackled, from different angles, the African diaspora, but he soon decided that he had to take on something more ambitious: a feature-length film. His shorts, collectively titled The Diaspora Suite, had experimented with storytelling conventions, so why couldn’t his feature? Perhaps, he thought, he could draw on the experience he’d had as a younger man.

The result is The Inheritance, a provocative fiction/documentary hybrid about a modern-day collective in Philadelphia, which follows a group of characters living together with the goal of addressing and combating society’s ills. The film, available in virtual cinemas now, alternates between scripted sequences and archival footage of, for instance, the history of MOVE, including the 1985 bombing of the group by local police. In this way, The Inheritance joins a growing number of accomplished films chronicling MOVE’s legacy, which includes Let the Fire Burn and the recent 40 Years a Prisoner. As part of The Inheritance’s weaving of real life into its narrative, actual MOVE members speak to the characters about the organization, the past reaching out to the present as different generations of political protest connect with one another. It’s one of the advantages of making a super-low-budget film: You’re your own boss, so Asili didn’t have anyone controlling the purse strings telling him to tone down his movie’s overt political stance. Or, as he puts it, “I didn’t have to go, ‘Well, so-and-so back in L.A. is going to be offended.’”

When I spoke to Asili in early March, he was keen to discuss his time in a collective — and what he’d do differently now that he’s older. But he also wanted to set the record straight that groups like the one portrayed in The Inheritance shouldn’t be confused with communes that are trying to create a blissful utopia — in fact, their goals are diametrically opposed. Indeed, for Asili, his film (and, in many ways, his life) is an act of resistance, which is why the sudden lack of urgency on the part of certain progressives now that Joe Biden is in office disappoints him but doesn’t surprise him. “The liberal agenda is about not seeing problems, not necessarily about fixing problems,” he tells me. Movies like The Inheritance are a way to remind viewers to stay vigilant about those problems.

The Inheritance is described as being semi-autobiographical, but I wasn’t clear: In your own life, did you start a collective or join one?

We formed the collective. I was married at the time — I got married very young to a young activist. We had very similar ideas about the world, we decided to get married and have a baby, so that’s what we did. We had a mutual friend, and we were all talking about living together — there was this network of collectively owned and operated houses in West Philadelphia, one of those houses was being vacated, and so they were looking for a new community to take over the house. We put in this proposal, we were given the house. So there were three of us — I guess four because, by the time we got the house, my son was born. 

When I think about it now, it’s very funny to me: It was like we were going to the food co-op and putting up a want ad for people to join this Black radical collective or something. But it more or less worked for a number of years — in fact, the house that was started is still there under a different iteration. 

Were there any roadmaps for how to run a collective that you followed?

Not specifically, which was very strange, but for the most part, it was harmonious. In the widest sense, we thought of it as an anarchist collective in terms of everything being a consensus decision and that everybody has equal say-so — you just sit around until you figure things out. But you quickly learn how inefficient that is and how rarely you actually get to the point where everyone is satisfied. And so it maybe [became] this process of collective disillusionment, but who knows?

I would say that this is autobiographical in the film as well: We were very close to MOVE, and a lot of us were very interested in different types of African religion or versions of it in the West. So there were a lot of things that we were thinking about and discussing all the time and principles that were floated around, but it wasn’t like we consulted some sort of book of rules or anything like that. 

My wife and I, we were the only ones in the beginning with a child, and so we were always kind of harping on everyone to keep the floors clean because we had our baby — that was where this “No shoes in the house thing” [in The Inheritance] developed. Those little things end up becoming the big flare-ups down the line — someone not changing the cat litter, or it was your night to cook. I wanted to explore that [in the film] and its relation to also being very serious — we were pretty unified in our activism, doing very similar activist work. So you had fraught relationships in some places that are harmonious in others and working with all of that. But also, I think we did a good job at interviewing people [for our collective] — maybe we screened out anyone that would steer us off course.

Scenes from The Inheritance

Other films have depicted utopias, which often don’t end up working out. It seems like the lesson is often that the best intentions aren’t always enough. 

Well, even the idea “utopia” — right back to the original text — it’s a Western idea about what society should look like based on people who’ve been basically kicked around by monarchs for however long. So what do they know about collective living? And then, ironically, the people who are communicating these ideas of utopia are going to the Americas and exploiting the people who are actually able to demonstrate how to live in better federations that are more democratic — as was true of people of African descent. In Africa, traditionally speaking, things are communal. 

When I think of the history of collectives from an African-American point-of-view, inherent in that — especially in the West — is resistance. And when you’re resisting dominant society, there’s no room for so-called utopia. So, these films that are about that, in my opinion, they’re often escapist, European, white American fantasies around living with other people — they don’t necessarily have anything to do with trying to resist and stand in opposition to what’s happening in society. Also, I don’t know the living experiences of the directors who make these films — is it their experience? I often get the sense that it’s what they think it would be like, but I don’t know.

Was that part of the inspiration for The Inheritance — dramatizing resistance? 

Not really, weirdly enough. The resistance wasn’t the part that I felt like needed to be dramatized — that’s often dramatized with poor results. Initially, that was the first impulse, but when I really thought about it, that’s not where the drama of the story lies. It’s actually the domestic part: If I can get that right, everything else falls into place. Resistance is easy: “I’m mad as hell,” right? That’s done. We can do that, but that’s boring. Everyone does that. No one’s going to watch my movie [for that] — if someone wants to see a mad-as-hell movie, they want a $5-to-10-million mad-as-hell movie. They don’t want my $40,000 mad-as-hell movie. So I have to do something else.

But I have an advantage, which is that I’ve spent a lot of time in activist circles. I know that these little things are the things that really, at points, get to people. You’d be amazed at the downfall of people because someone won’t stop using someone else’s toothbrush. That was something that I needed to keep centered in my writing process — knowing that their background is in activism, that that’s happening all around and, in fact, closing in on them, but that didn’t need to be the central part of what I’m doing. As a director, it’s just not that exciting artistically, either — it didn’t feel challenging.

Maybe it’s a product of getting older — you realized that “I’m as mad as hell” isn’t enough for a movie. 

In some ways, [my collective] was very passionate — we really thought we were getting to the bottom of something, and we really worked to get there. I sometimes think if I were to go back into living like that now, I’d have lesser expectations — those expectations not being as great might actually be more effective in terms of sustaining a space like that. 

But it had to be a group of people under a certain age. As a director, the almost therapeutic part of making the film was trying to analyze that element of myself at the time, trying to get outside of the ideological debates. “What were the things beneath the surface that were happening?” If I could bring some of my insights of now into these experiences of these young people, that was something that was a dramatic and fun element for me. I don’t really feel necessarily like the male protagonist is the stand-in for me — there’s a decent amount of me in him, but I’m putting myself in all the characters in a lot of ways and saying, “Well, how would I see it from this angle and that angle and so forth?” It’s an interesting way to reflect on the past.

Scenes from The Inheritance

How young were you when you became aware of MOVE?

My earliest memories of MOVE are, in fact, the bombing in 1985. I was five or six years old — I remember it happening. I distinctly remember being at a gathering of some sort, maybe a couple of years after that, like a street festival, and I remember I was walking with my father, and we got face-to-face with [former Philadelphia mayor] Wilson Goode. I remember there being something really strange about it. Funny enough, it ended up being on the news — the news camera just happened to turn on when we were there. But I remember even then knowing there was something odd about interacting with that fellow. 

Another thing I remember, maybe more vividly than any of this, is when Ramona Africa was released from prison in the 1990s — everything came back again. It was kind of like, “Oh, that was that bombing that I remember as a kid. That’s why that person’s a strange character amongst Black people.” Then it was out of sight/out of mind for a number of years. But then it just so happened that the woman I eventually married, when I first met her, she lived only a block away from MOVE headquarters. We were all very close — she was friendly with them, I became friendly with them, and we were good friends. I had been going through a lot of hard things in my life, and MOVE was very supportive through all of that. My wife had a natural childbirth — MOVE coached us through a lot of that. So we were always close. What they’ve been for me in my life is very different than most people. 

Did you hope that The Inheritance would correct some of those negative media representations of MOVE? Was that the impulse behind including MOVE members in the film?

Yes and no. Yes, in that it was important for me that these [characters] in the collective have that transformation. They have MOVE approach [them] and are maybe uncomfortable, but they need these people to explain who they are to them — and by the end, they’re convinced that MOVE is something worth believing [in], or at least taking seriously and learning from. That’s something that needed to happen in the film — and if it happens in the film, then it will happen for some people in the audience. 

I think MOVE themselves and other people have already vindicated MOVE, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted something much more human than that, and so I didn’t necessarily have this agenda of saying, “No, media, you got it wrong and these are really lovable people.” I know that about them — if I have this organic interaction in the film, then people will see that for what it is. But it wasn’t, like, an ax to grind [that] I had going in. 

I felt like Let the Fire Burn did a decent job of doing what it did. And 40 Years a Prisoner actually was being made at the same time — I didn’t know it, but I figured it’s only a matter of time ‘til someone makes that film. And that frees me up to do this other thing, where it’s not necessarily about the judgment of MOVE. 

Last year, Black Lives Matter was a significant movement, but since Biden got elected, I sense this general relaxing in the culture: “Okay, the problems are solved now that Trump’s gone.” That’s a broad generalization, I realize, but as a filmmaker and activist, is it frustrating that it seems like people aren’t paying attention as much as they were, say, a year ago? 

It’s not frustrating because I expected it to be this way. This is the liberal dilemma — this is what happens every time we get a Democrat in the White House. It’s like, “Oh, finish line, goal!” — and then people go back to doing whatever it is they do. The liberal agenda is about not seeing problems, not necessarily about fixing problems. Out of sight/out of mind is how national politics works. I’m not in a position, as are any other Black people, to do that — we’re not afforded that luxury in this country. We’re always reminded of our problems. And so we’re used to this happening. There was this national moment happening that seemed like it had the potential to really create change — I’m not saying that nothing’s happening, but to your point, it’s nowhere near at the level that it was just a few months ago. 

But I anticipated all of this — much like I anticipated the killings that were happening when I made the film. These are cycles in this country — this isn’t a linear path that we’re on, and it never has been, nor do I think it ever will be. It’s always phases that we go through as a nation, and so this is very much normal. 

The Right, to give them some points, their sense of outrage and activism is always at fever pitch. They don’t back down. The Left backs down once one gets comfortable. But that’s the point about being a liberal — you want everybody to be comfortable. And so, once some people are comfortable, “Okay, let’s relax.” So it makes sense to a certain degree, but it doesn’t make it okay at all.

And that’s a reason for, again, trying to make sure that a film like what I’m making has artistic merit. Politics are always trending. So [something] will be trendy for a minute — “Oh, that was a Black Lives Matter-era film” — but when you’re bringing formal concerns along with those concerns, hopefully down the line it functions as something that is operating on another level.

When I spoke to Garrett Bradley about her documentary Time, she talked about why the simple act of putting Black lives on screen is meaningful. In The Inheritance, you include insert shots of Black artists — their album covers, their books — and I wondered if that, in part, was a way of telling the audience that these people matter. 

A term that I hate from my documentary training is this idea of a B-roll — implying that it’s secondary to someone sitting in a chair talking or something like that. Most people who like to shoot film find that the B-roll is more interesting in most films than what the other thing is. You know, the cutaway — you’re cutting away to this thing — but I’m never “cutting away” from anything. I’m always cutting to. There’s an equality to every image, hopefully, in my films. Why waste frames? And so every image is working that way. And so, a chair can be a character or a photograph can be a character, anything — it all operates the same way. I want to hopefully film it with the same delicacy that I’m filming a human being or anything like that. 

As someone who shoots my work, it’s the photographer in me that says, “Yeah, every image is important.” I’m not a director that’s a writer primarily, so the fiction and nonfiction — the mistakes, the things that people do perfect — I want it all in there in some way. It’s just about balancing the equation.

Scenes from The Inheritance

In an earlier interview, you said, “The Inheritance is not about the expression of rage or disgust; it’s about what happens the morning after, when we go back home after the protest. That’s where the work begins.” I was curious how you see the film exploring that idea.

We were talking about the protest film that’s about the big rah-rah, anger-out-in-the-streets event — that’s all super-fantastic. But if that was the end-all, be-all, we’d have conquered every social ill on the planet. It’s important, but obviously it isn’t the end game in terms of getting things done. 

When we put so much attention on that as a gesture, as a society, it actually disempowers people because they don’t know what to do after that. And so it doesn’t necessarily always make sense that, if somebody is murdered in Minneapolis, that I go march down the street in Hudson, New York — maybe there are other things that I could be doing. And to your point about liberals falling asleep at the wheel, how do we not do that? How do we take what happens at a protest and sustain ourselves? And so I wanted this film to function as “How do we sustain ourselves with this energy [when] it can’t always be at that fever pitch?” We have to take time to talk to our partners and our neighbors or whomever, and that’s as much a part of the work as going to the protest. But how do you do that? 

I was free to make a film like that. That’s not going to fly in a [traditional] production meeting: “I just want to make a film about getting along with people after a protest.” No one wants to hear that. They want explosions — they want people being spat on or whatever. That was a luxury I had [with] my micro-budget: “I want to focus on the tiny things that we can do in a daily way to keep ourselves going.”

It seems intentional, then, that The Inheritance has a happy ending. The collective is still going strong when the credits roll. 

They survive. They get to do it for another day or week or however long. And that’s it. 

In early versions of the script, I was looking for that grand-slam ending. But I’m fortunate enough to work in a place where I have access to filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Kelly Reichardt and to sit down with them and talk about these things. And I have to acknowledge them in terms of some of my rewrites, in terms of challenging myself to arrive at a much more human place at the end of the film and to resist the impulse to try to send it out of the park. Survival, in this day and age, for the people who exist in this film, is a major accomplishment.