Film Review of THE INHERITANCE and a discussion of the legacy of Jim Crow Cinema!

I just came back from viewing THE INHERITANCE, the feature film debut of Robert O’Hara, it is a horror film about 5 cousins, their inheritance, and… the elders.

The first thing that struck me about the film was the quite impressive poster, the 2nd thing was that it was a film by children of the Diaspora, a Black film, a Nubian film, and the third and deciding thing that had me travel 2 hours each way to see this film, was the type of Black film it was; it wasn’t a mama drama, it wasn’t a lowest common denominator comedy, it wasn’t a complaint film, it was a straight up horror film, a genre film.

And if we accept the defacto standard of Hollywood as a producer of ‘white’ films, (No he didn’t just say that! How dare him! …. :) Yep I said it! ) I find it incredibly liberating when a film tries to work outside those White messages, and Black stereotypes, and supposed acceptable Black genres.

And whether labeled as a White film or not (Oh my God! He said it again! How dare him!) most Hollywood films have that unspoken truth embedded in their DNA.

And in terms of not seeing labeling such as a WHITE PEOPLE magazine or a WHITE DISNEY movie, or a WHITE FOX news or a WHITE POWER KFC chain (look up the past and present of KFC, you’ll see that appellation is definitely apt :)) , these appellations are avoided not for any noble reasons, but only for reasons of being able to generate revenue from the largest broadest audience, and to avoid the undesired consequence such acknowledgment of the skewed power structure of mass-media (and by extrapolation American life) may engender… such as a return to 20s and 60s/70s type civil disobedience (that only really became frightening to the power structure when these young upstarts began thinking in terms of economic disobedience) seen in film with a push toward Black owned Studios and Stuntmen Associations and Local Theaters.

If the 60s taught the power structure of America anything it was that the concept of separate and unequal left too much money on the table (Black Newspapers, Black farms, Black Radio shows, Black unions, Black controlled schools, Black Clothing companies, Black owned clinics, Black owned transportation companies, Black owned venues), that instead the concept of together and unequal, the illusion of integration and equality, is where true financial dominance lies. So Hollywood films with crushingly few exceptions are exactly that… white films.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

Films primarily with a white director, written from a white perspective, written to project and enforce a white ideal, or embed, define a stereotype for those who are not White. They are films written primarily to play into the power structure, the world view of a white audience, or to… whiten their audience, and ultimately films that put dollars primarily into White hands. even to the point of films that have Black faces in them, only as a means of delivering white messages and reinforcing black stereotypes.

Now do I think filmmakers come at film in such simplistic color-coded terms, no I do not. I think filmmakers as a whole, are a humanistic and holistic bunch, and see the world far less simplistically and moronically than that, far more humanistically and perhaps even nobly than those who do not think in cinematic language, but filmmakers too often have to work as cogs within a structure that does want the formula and the stereotype. Film is more marketing, and I do feel films are marketed and manipulated with an unhealthy amount of color-coded bias.

So it’s important to understand the underlying structure of film, and the traps inherent, and to have films generated that attempt to transcend that structure. And there is no better way to do this, than with genre films.

Genre film, is the life blood of film, John Woo’s THE KILLER, Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST, JJ Abrams STAR TREK, Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS are films that are bankable all around the world, because they deal with iconic concepts, that are about universal pulls we can all relate to of sex, or fear, or violence, or courage. And I think too often films, so-called Black films (which more often than not, when you follow the money, are not Black films They have Black faces, but white messages), are relegated to the basest, and lowest, and most petty talk show common denominator when it comes to cinema of today.

And I think this point merits some discussion prior to getting into the film review proper.

The films of the 70s were not Black Exploitation or Blaxploitation, back then those films employed Black directors, employed Black actors in droves, opened up the door to Black composers, cinematographers, stuntmen, producers, and made money in Black owned theaters, and often were brilliant, uplifting, exciting, challenging and influential such as THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, TROUBLE MAN, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, GORDON’S WAR, MELINDA to name a few.

So in the 70s, the Black community was generating an influx of dollars from those films. Compare that to today when rarely are people in front or behind the camera colored, and there are no Black owned theaters (Magic Johnson’s theaters are a franchise, those are Sony’s Theaters, like too many people of color, they buy into another man’s wealth, rather than defining their own, same as with BET) and given those facts you can clearly see, that the true age of Black Exploitation is not yesterday, but today.

So given today’s cinema of exploitation, it is really a great thing when a DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS hits the theaters or an EVE’S BAYOU or a CAPPUCCINO, films that tread that landscape of the iconic and the fantastic and the experimental. Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, all countries making films that do gangbusters on the world stage, because they make brilliant genre films, be it horror, thriller, scifi, Action/Martial Arts that give the audience those universals of iconography and fanaticism, and yes excitement and experimentation.

Black Cinema in the 21st century has to grow or die, the same as with Black Music, and the only way to do that, is to stop letting others outside the community define the width and breadth of what determines that community. I’m not saying don’t have your small intimate films, or occasional comedies, but they need to be just one part of a diverse and broad scope of films, particularly films of the fantastic.

So that’s why I’m always there to support a film like THE INHERITANCE.

Ah you see what I did there? After the lengthy history lesson, macro view, I now bring it back home and focus on the microview and one specific film.

Nifty huh? :).

2011’s THE INHERITANCE. Strong opening, nicely shot, well performed, overall very engaging script. The film is not without its flaws, chief among them is the editing. Particularly a horror film relies on effective editing to make it… horrific.

And effective marriage of camera placement, editing, performance and sound to make an effective scene. This film is weak on the ability to build scary scenes, they tend to just sit there, often telegraphing any possible suspense, such as Lily’s carcrash scene and its aftermath. That whole scene cries out to be redone.

And you get the sense some shots were not fully done or left on the editing room floor, so you get this haphazard and unclear presentation of events, that screams less stylistic choice than budgetary constraints. Add to that sometimes the film arches a little high in terms of exposition and melodrama, particularly in the last act, overblown, into moments of self parody, that worked at odds with the darker thematic elements of the film. Something eliciting laugh-out loud laughter rather than the expected tension. And there are too few of those moments to consider them knowing winks at the audience, they come off as, what they most likely were, mistakes of tone. The exception to this being the inclusion of the White couple, flipping the color wheel on the token roles typically given to Black characters in genre/horror films. I quite like that little playful jab at screen conventions.

So minor hiccups aside, I quite enjoyed this film. With the exception, of the arched acting in the last act, for the most part I thought the performances by the entire cast was pretty darn fantastic. The problem with most Horror films, be it SCREAM or CURSED or ‘insert Horror flick here’ is you don’t care about the characters, and the kind of undercurrent that typical Hollywood horror films play to is unlikeable characters, killed in horrible ways.

In many ways if you look at films like SAW or FRIDAY THE XIII it’s serial killing by proxy, the audience there to root for stupid characters to die, and watch the villain kill and torture for them. I think that’s a troubling and unhealthy dynamic that traditional Hollywood cinema feeds into, on a lot of levels that are beyond the scope of this review. So those type of horror films, I have no interest in. Thankfully THE INHERITANCE aims higher than that, a supernatural chiller more in line with films such as SKELETON KEY, it’s possessed of characters you care about and want to see… survive.

Golden Brooks leads the young actors and gives a strong and centering performance as Karen, the film’s focal point. Having been in the business since the late 90s, she brings experience that is clearly put to good use here, as in many ways the film lives and dies, on her ability to carry your interest, and your concern. And she does the job admirably.

Rochelle Aytes, as Lily, is best known to me from TRICK R TREAT and DAYBREAK, in both properties delivering scene stealing performances, and that is no different here. She is a young woman of such immense beauty, that she tends to completely own the camera whenever it is on her. One of the most powerful scenes in the film centers around her, a drum, and a fireplace, wonderfully filmed and wonderfully performed. She has that rare and rarefied quality, that can only inadequately, yet somehow rightly, be described as star power.

D.B. Woodside brings a very unique performance, as Henry, the Alpha male among the cousins. A performance that is both contemplative and quiet, and when needed volatile and vulnerable. If it skews perhaps a bit too much to the latter in the last act, that has to be put on the requirements of script and direction, and not this actor, as all the actors go a bit off the rails in that third act. Woodside is another actor that goes back to the 90s in terms of credits, bringing a copious amount of experience to his role of Henry. Best known to many for his work in BUFFY and 24, he’s a charismatic actor, that is unfortunately underused, or badly used in television and film. He’s an actor clearly capable of carrying leading man roles, and hopefully this film will help put him on more filmmakers radar. Or director himself, having completed the short film FIRSTS, perhaps we can look for more directorial work from him as well.

Two other actors, Darrin Dewitt Henson and Shawn Michael Howard, the thrice named ones, complete the quintet of cousins. Shawn Michael Howard, with credits going back to 1993, in many ways has the trickiest role… walking that fine line between being humor, greek chorus, and audience release value. Particularly in a Horror film, which because it is so overblown runs the risk of being humorous rather than horrific, an audience needs to carried through the emotional beats of a story, so you’re getting the laugh out of the way when you need it, and that makes the moments when you deliver the serious portions, that much more compelling, and honored.

To some degree an audience is always part snarky character waiting to pull at the threads of the blanket you’ve woven, if you make those threads too obvious. Ready to laugh and deride what’s happening in the film. So having someone in the film, to be that grounding snarky character takes that role, thankfully, out of the audience’s hands. And I’m not talking about overblown humor here, I’m talking about just the natural humor that is generated by situations that take us off our routine. And this is what Shawn Michael Howard does admirably here, he keeps people at least through the first 2/3rds of the movie, grounded in the movie, laughing with the film, rather than at the film, no doubt abetted by a strong script, and capable direction.

And if Howard has the trickiest role then Darrin Dewitt Henson has the most thankless one. With so many characters, and such vibrant characters, such archetypes [chosen one, warrior, lustful virgin/lovelorn maiden, foolish rogue] all requiring screen time, someone has to just be the quiet guy/sounding board. Someone has to be the pause between all these exclamations, and that is Henson’s role. Thankless but very necessary, and Henson does his part credit. And without a doubt he’s an actor to watch. In-fact, with the exception of the stunning and always in demand Rochelle Aytes, he’s the busiest of the quintet of actors, having quite a few credits to his name in the last couple of years.

That brings us to the veterans. Keith David as Uncle Melvin headlines this film, and for good reason, he’s cinematic gold, and walking talking cinema icon, having over a 190 credits to his name. The reason? Because he makes everything he’s in… better. From Carpenter’s THING to PLATOON to OFF LIMITS to BIRD to THEY LIVE to THE LAST OUTLAW to CLOCKERS to GRAVE (a little seen movie, but quite nice) to DON KING to THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY to INNOCENTS (haven’t seen it but quite frankly intrigued to take a look) to PITCH BLACK to TRANSPORTER 2 to ATL to THE BUTCHER (and yes I’m naming a whole bunch of films for your Keith David marathon :)) to DON MCKAY. So here he brings that wonderful, both easy and commanding delivery to a film, anchoring it with equal parts charm and menace.

Lanre Idewu (best known for IRENE IN TIME) does an admiral job as Chakabazz. Novella Nelson (Aunt Bee)and André De Shields (Uncle Grady)don’t have a lot of screen time, but bring a masterful amount of craft to their portrayals. They bring a level of… veracity and dignity that elevates the film. The difference between acting and being. I’ve looked through their filmographies, and these roles while small, I think standout as well realized and iconic roles. Young actors can learn a lot by watching these understated performances… of menace. Finally Adriane Lenox fills out the principal players as Felicia, seemingly the ex-wife of Keith David’s character.

All these players are part of the stew of this debut film by writer/director Robert O’ Hara. It is quite a respectable first film, the Cinematography by Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, in some of the scenes is quite stellar. However, as expressed, the editing is where the film, in crucial scenes, falls down. Now that could be editor Craig Hayes just doing what he was told by the director, but ultimately again the buck stops and starts with the director, the man in the big chair.

But that aside, O’ Hara’s misteps in this film are outweighed by his successes. For a small budget debut film, I liked it quite a bit more than most films that do receive a broad cinema distribution. As a whole. the film is solid entertainment, and a film that I look forward to adding to my DVD library.

People forget that great directors such as Hitchcock and Lang, as a rule, don’t start out making masterpieces, but learning their craft with each successive film. John Ford making a lot of forgettable films before masterpieces like SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE. So it’s unfortunate that in the current filmic landscape it is difficult for a/filmmakers to get funding and b/filmmakers to get distribution.

Carl Franklin is a great example, clearly one of the most talented and innovative directors of his age, in 22 years he’s only had a chance to make 7 feature films, and this is a known and bankable director. Contrast this to directors like Ford who have a 146 (mostly) feature film credits, and studios at that time actually willing to put out films. It is a much more daunting landscape for new filmmakers today.

And it becomes even more difficult for filmmakers of color, when distributors are looking for the stereotype rather than the game changer. All this to say, if this is Robert O’ Hara’s first film, I would love to see him do more films, as it is obvious he’s an unconventional filmmaker with real talent, and fresh perspectives.

Go see this film. It’s worth seeing for the drum scene alone. And it’s worth seeing as perhaps one small step toward a less skewed cinema, and a less marginalizing one. Recommended. C+.