Ephraim Asili Suggests a Different Model of Remembrance

Ephraim Asili’s Song for My Mother (2023) ruminates on the interplay between historical value and familial intimacy to suggest a different form of remembrance. An ode to his great-uncle Dr. Richard Moore, who presided over Bethune–Cookman University (B–CU) from 1947–75, the film moves through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the legacy of slave labor that has both built universities and been built over by campuses for generations. Song takes place on the beach, in the classrooms of the B–CU, and in the surrounding ruins of a tangible recent past. 

The film plays across three screens, building and contrasting with each other fluidly. While a student plays their saxophone on the center screen, the right screen may display a shot of a beach, while a spider forms a web on the left. It is liberating to roam your gaze across the channels, forging connections between the images and your own history. But it also brings to mind painful questions: How can a place with such talented students, for instance, also be the site of centuries of enslavement? Asili’s juxtaposition of these events point to history’s brutality as a continuously present phenomenon. The struggle of being Black in America today is the consequence of generations of systemized violence. The communal reverence for HBCUs is a legacy of agency passed down from the will of formerly enslaved people.

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Ephraim Asili and Michael B. Gillespie at Amant for “Film Blackness,” a conversation between the two about Song for My Mother, on January 25, 2024 (photo by Eda Li)

In a conversation with scholar Michael B. Gillespie, Asili discussed the making of the film as a study in negotiating professional identity. He said that B–CU wasn’t initially open to the idea of a filmmaker on campus with his camera, so they limited his access. But referring to himself as “an experimental filmmaker” who “seemed, like, quasi-normal to them — whatever normal means —  took a lot of pressure off.” The institution, however, still restricted what he was allowed to film. Only the music and math departments opened themselves to Asili with impromptu performances. 

One student in the film talks about how his family instilled the university as part of a proud heritage; he had often visited B–CU years before enrolling. Conceptually, this relationship is represented in the film by overlaying photos from Asili’s own family and the university’s archives atop a thrifted tapestry. Such aesthetic decisions to represent the connectivity of far-flung histories draw upon his previous films such as The Inheritance (2020), a semi-fictional narrative based on the experiences of Black liberation groups including MOVE and uses material from Temple University archives to connect the present lives of the central characters to Philadelphia’s recent history of Black activism. 

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Still from Ephraim Asili, Song for My Mother (2023)

Asili’s work suggests that Black cinema is not embodied by symbols or language but rather a network of collectivity and togetherness. In these terms, HBCUs are contrasted with the elitism of Ivy League schools: Rather than perpetuate the violent consequences of individualism, they uphold the ideal that there is collective wealth to be found in Black excellence. In that vein, Song for My Mother at Amant contains not only the three-channel film, but also showcases a collection drawn from the archives Asili worked with to construct it — an apt metaphor for how personal work and life is rooted deeply in a larger history.

Song for My Mother (2023) by Ephraim Asili is screening and on view at Amant in Brooklyn until March 3.

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