Jason Fuhrman celebrates two prominent narrative features by Black directors—”The Inheritance” and “This Is My Desire”—included in the 2021 virtual fest.
As I was studying this year’s festival guide, two films immediately jumped out. Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance (2020) and the Esiri Brothers’ This Is My Desire (2020) felt particularly appropriate after a turbulent year of worldwide protests that, at their height, seemed to actually herald something of a paradigm shift in consciousness for the human race. Although the momentum of what became the single largest civil rights movement in history has waned considerably, the events of last summer planted the seeds for a better future.
The spirit of those actions en masse also remains very much alive in the arts. Besides being debut features by promising young Black filmmakers, both The Inheritance and This Is My Desire present refreshing counterpoints to the never-ending stream of traumatic transmissions from the media.
For me, these two films exemplify the power of cinema to realign our perceptions and make us feel human again. Both selections provocatively engage with urgent social issues while inventing bold new cinematic languages. They also seamlessly and colorfully blend reality with fiction, offer profound insights into contemporary Black life, and dare to imagine a more humane world.
A scintillating cinematic celebration of Black joy, art, music, expression, history, culture, and power, The Inheritance 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 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival.
The virtual festival this year begins 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.
Interweaving the stories of two individuals desperately working toward a better future abroad, This Is My Desire [Eyimofe] presents a visually striking, meticulously observed, vibrant, and sensitive portrait of contemporary Lagos. Nigerian twin brother co-directors Arie and Chuko Esiri divide their narrative into two chapters and an epilogue, transitioning to each part with a slow, elegant fade-out.
In the first, they follow Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), a middle-aged factory technician and security guard who repairs electronics on the side, while trying to migrate to Spain. Then the focus shifts to Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams), a hairdresser by day and bartender by night who also cares for her younger pregnant sister Grace (Cynthia Ebijie), while setting her sights on Italy. As Mofe and Rosa do whatever it takes to achieve their respective goals, they find themselves deeply entangled in an intricate web of exasperating bureaucratic processes, purely transactional relationships, and almost endless negotiations.
Although they both belong to the lower class and live in the same poor neighborhood, their lives never directly intersect. Despite their mutual determination to escape the sprawling, frenetic metropolis, misfortune intervenes to derail their plans. A shocking family tragedy results in unexpected expenses for Mofe, while Rosa fails to fulfill her promise after making a Faustian bargain with a shrewd broker (played by comedian Chioma Omeruah).
Throughout the film, copious naira banknotes are exchanged constantly, and the harsh realities of underclass survival lurk just beneath the sterile surfaces of polite social behavior. This is My Desire patiently portrays the minute details of Mofe and Rosa’s daily struggles, while emphasizing the resonances and similarities between them. The generous use of long takes by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan allows us to absorb the sights and sounds of Lagos, which Arie Esiri has described as a “third character” in the film.
Offering a panoramic view of Africa’s largest city, This Is My Desire moves from the cramped abodes of its two poverty-stricken protagonists to the trendy hotels, upscale rooftop restaurants, and ultramodern bars where savvy businessmen and affluent expatriates lead carefree lives of luxury. While the filmmakers realistically depict the rigid social hierarchy and empty consumer culture of Lagos, their complex, ambivalent film also finds beauty in the textures, rhythms, and simple pleasures of quotidian existence there. In a recent interview, Arie explained, “We don’t set out to make films to prove a point or make people think a certain way, but more to show in as much truth as we can what a certain situation is like.”
As the parallel emotional journeys of Mofe and Rosa unfold, the film ultimately reveals something poignantly human in their deferred hopes and dreams. Through its naturalistic, documentary-style shooting, vividly three-dimensional characters, contemplative pacing, and exquisite, painterly compositions, This is My Desire truly immerses viewers in the rich tapestry of Lagosian life, while generating a strong sense of empathy for the people who adapt and survive against all odds.