NYFF Dispatch I: The Inheritance & Lovers Rock Review

Ephraim Asili and Steve McQueen make you yearn for community.

One of the many gifts cinema bestows on us all is the ability to manipulate time. A cut is a willful bending of time, a recording a chance to time travel, and its marriage the very essence of what filmmaking can accomplish. A film can transport you back in time or make you dream up a future, always pushing you outside of your own sense of time to get you to inhabit its own. But even as the rhythms and promises of cinema writ large depend on this mastery of time, the big screen is just as successful in getting us to reconceptualize space. I kept thinking about this while watching two films that played during the opening night of this year’s New York Film Festival: Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance and Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, from his Small Axe cycle.

These are films that want to capture a moment, yes, but they are most interested in capturing the value of community-run spaces. A West Philadelphia house that doubles as a hub for a community of young Black organizers and a London house that plays host to the city’s West Indian community during a blissful late night party anchor two projects that seem, on the surface, to want nothing more than to get us to experience these sites. Yet by the end of each, you almost don’t want to leave, especially given the way Asili and McQueen turn these spatial portraits into urgent interventions about history and belonging.

The Inheritance

At the heart of The Inheritance is a question about the radical possibility of conceiving of a different way of conceiving of living with one another. In the scripted scenes that punctuate this work, Asili depicts how hard it can be (for some) to think of an alternate mode of being in the world: Julian (Eric Lockley) and his partner, Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) are intent on turning his grandmother’s house, which he’s inherited, into the hub for a novel vision of collectivity, where words like “rent” feel ill-fitting and where communal decisions, difficult as they may be to agree on, drive house rules. The “House of Ubuntu” as they dub it, hopes to reshape the way its young adherents operate.

Asili’s film intersperses Julian’s scenes, which crackle with a verité authenticity that makes them almost seem like documentary footage, with actual archival footage that interweaves the story of the MOVE group in 1970s Philly. Just as its title seemingly refers to Julian’s material inheritance, Asili pushes us to see how John Africa’s teachings, which drove much of the MOVE group’s core philosophy, live on in spaces like the “House of Ubuntu.” By the time the film introduces us to John Africa Jr. who comes to tell the story of how his father and mother were arrested (he was born in prison) and how the MOVE house was bombed by Philadelphia police in 1985, the utopian vision of Julian’s contemporary commune is necessarily tied to a long history of resistance and resilience.

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How does one make room for a space like the kind Julian (and John Africa) envisioned when it still has to co-exist with a system that polices it and all but aims to destroy it? The radical nature of The Inheritance comes from the way such intellectual questions are grounded in art-making, in community-building, in activism, in history-making — in the very space of a house that is both domestic and public, intent on breaking down boundaries that maintain racist and capitalist systems of power. Equally formally exacting and loose, Asili’s film is both essay and poem.

Lovers Rock

Watched alongside McQueen’s film made The Inheritance feel all the more poignant. McQueen, after all, has created another kind of visual poem altogether that revels in the radical possibilities its characters embody. But where Asili channeled the spoken word poetry of the likes of Ursula Rucker and Sonia Sanchez, whose musical verses are beautifully captured throughout the film, McQueen takes his rhythm and sensibility from the music that runs through his party of a film. The energy of Janet Kay’s swooning and thumping “Silly Games,” for instance, is the beating heart of Lovers Rock which, in its simplicity, also asks us to immerse ourselves in a community that feels wholly removed from the ruthless world outside.

Without knowing how Lovers Rock fits in within the larger Small Axe cycle (it’s the second installment in McQueen’s anthology series), it’s clear that above all else, the 12 Years a Slave filmmaker has created a sensory experience that, in its focus on this one night, reverberates outside of the screen. Light on plot, Lovers Rock follows Martha (a luminous Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) as she attends a party in London with a friend. She spends her night swatting away dirty looks from other girls, ill-conceived advances from drunken dapper men, and swapping flirtatious glances and dances with a laconic stranger (Micheal Ward) with whom she forms an electric connection. A meet-cute writ-large, the film is an ethereal happening intent on capturing mood. As Shabier Kirchner’s camera roams around a sweat-filled dance floor, with McQueen intent on keeping us rooted in moments of ebullient freedom, you let yourself go.

What’s remarkable is how the film never loses its dreamlike quality even when reality creeps its ugly head. Amid its incantatory celebration, McQueen and co-screenwriter Courttia Newland’s creation finds ways of still making this night not be wholly immune from racism and violence, reminders that the space here so cherished may well be — like the “House of Ubuntu” — always at risk of falling apart.

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On their own, The Inheirtance and Lovers Rock are singular creation. Having seen them together, as I did during the first week of the 2020 New York Film Festival, they were mesmerizing portraits of spaces that felt rooted in a radical vision of past, present and future.

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