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Rooftop Cinema: “The Inheritance” is a radical and vibrant tribute to Black art and activism

If you missed Ephraim Asili’s French New Wave-inspired debut feature at this year’s virtual Wisconsin Film Festival, Rooftop Cinema at MMoCA is once again presenting it on August 13.

This piece was originally published on May 11 as part of a Wisconsin Film Festival feature by Jason Fuhrman.

Photo: A scene inside the Black Marxist collective house in West Philadelphia. The distinctively bright, orange decor and personal artwork displayed on the wall complements the cheerful exchange between the two women activists.

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A scintillating cinematic celebration of Black joy, art, music, expression, history, culture, and power, The Inheritance (2020) is essential viewing for anyone who believes that Black Lives Matter. In the wake of widespread social unrest, community activism, and reckoning with racial injustice sparked by the summary execution of George Floyd, as well as countless other acts of police violence, Ephraim Asili’s vibrant, kaleidoscopic, and playfully experimental debut feature stands out as one of the timeliest selections of the virtual 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival [and now Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s Rooftop Cinema series].

The virtual festival this year began on May 13, which happens to be the anniversary of a particularly heinous and abominable act of state-sanctioned terrorism against the Black community. On that fateful day in 1985, longstanding tensions between MOVE, a militant Black liberation group, and the Philadelphia Police Department erupted into an armed conflict. That evening, a Philadelphia police helicopter dropped a bomb laced with Tovex and C-4 explosives on the roof of the MOVE headquarters. It went up in unextinguished flames and eleven people were killed, including five children. Sixty-one homes were destroyed, and more than 250 citizens were left homeless. No one has ever been criminally charged for the attack. Ramona Africa, the sole surviving adult in the MOVE house, immediately went to prison on rioting and conspiracy charges for arrest warrants from before the bombing.

While the shadow of this terrible tragedy looms over Asili’s picture, the filmmaker appears less interested in lingering on that conflagration than in exploring what has risen from the ashes of it. With a title suggestive of some long-lost Andrei Tarkovsky masterpiece, The Inheritance follows in the footsteps of French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard—specifically his 1960s barrage of exuberant, color-drenched, and politically radical films—but through a contemporary Black lens. Focusing on the efforts of a group of artists and dissidents to form a Black Marxist collective in a West Philadelphia house, Asili’s collage-like work of art deftly intertwines archival footage, music excerpts, photographs, scripted vignettes, and appearances by the MOVE family of Debbie Africa, Mike Africa Sr., and Mike Africa Jr., as well as poet-activists Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker.

Asili himself describes the narrative as a “speculative reenactment” of his time in a West Philadelphia collective when he was younger. This story provides a template for the writer-director to spin off into provocative philosophical tangents and vivid, striking images, while integrating a wealth of literary and artistic references and adapting the rhythms of free jazz to convey the rich tapestry of Black life in America.

The Inheritance demonstrates the potential of cinema to actually raise the consciousness of the viewer to educate, inspire, and act as a catalyst for change, without coming across as tediously didactic or heavy-handed. It certainly does not shy away from confronting the harsh realities of systemic racism in the U.S., but Asili’s exhilarating, visionary docudrama treats its themes with sensitivity, warmth, humor, and love. As The Inheritance observes the inevitable conflicts, complications, and compromises of communal living, it also offers hope for the future.

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