An homage to La Chinoise by way of Black socialists in West Philly.
Books, records, and films are not merely window dressing, but charged objects that spark political awakening in this handcrafted debut. The camera glides over the works of Toni Morrison, Frank O'Hara, Angela Davis, inspecting them with care. Upon inheriting his grandmother's home, Julian (Eric Lockley) refashions it into a Black socialist collective, a home for radical creative thought and shared chores. He discovers communal living is harder than he thought, especially when your childhood friend disregards house rules to pilfer a spoonful of someone else’s spirulina and reflexively employs the word bitch. Working in different modes, like filmed fiction, documentary, and archival footage, Ephraim Asili stitches together different styles and tones, tracking potent themes in an unsuspecting way.
The title is manifold in its meaning. First the house Julian inherits from his grandmother. Next, it refers to the legacy conferred onto the characters (and director in a way) by radical movements past— particularly the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and Philly’s own collective MOVE of the 80s, which both figure into the film. And then there’s inherited historical traumas, though this film in particular dwells not on past hurts, but nods towards future change.
The film’s heritage lies of course with Godard’s La Chinoise. See the chalkboard walls emblazoned with mantras. A poster shows off on one wall, letting us know Asili knows. But whereas the Parisian Maoists were stringent and myopic in their terrorist-leaning beliefs, the youth here are gentler. A newly forged statute prohibits footwear indoors, a sign declaring “no shoes” (too negative) shifts into the more positive affirmation “we are a shoeless household.” Godard’s affluent youth also sequestered themselves from the outside world in the vacuum of their Parisian flats with ten foot high feelings. They were separated from the world afforded to them by their parents’ money. But the members of Unbuntu are more diverse in vocation, class, and outlook. There’s a degree-less barista, who gives a too-true monologue about casually skewers white liberal political correctness, and an older drummer who vouches for the right to bear arms. Asili also sticks with the indoors, but the Ubuntu interior and the tone he has generated doesn’t stifle, it nurtures.