'Residue': Film Review

Residue
ARRAY Releasing
An artful and piercing debut.
9/17/2020

Merawi Gerima's debut watches a man try to make sense of his childhood home's gentrification.

An arresting feature debut about a man returning home to a community that has been transformed, Merawi Gerima's Residue is honest enough about its protagonist's emotions and motivations that it's likely to cause discomfort in viewers wherever they fall on the socioeconomic spectrum. Elliptical and teasingly (but beautifully) photographed, it can give the impression of an experimental work but ultimately has a direct story to tell, one whose specificity doesn't in the least diminish its broader relevance.

Like the filmmaker, Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) grew up in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood surrounded by Black kids. His family moved off the block in hopes of escaping drug-dealing activity, and later, Jay fled entirely — moving to California for college, where he studied filmmaking. Now he's back, intending (like Gerima) to make a movie about his old street.

But the old street is barely there. White people are all over — loaded down with shopping bags, putting up giant fences, using "have a nice day" as a form of aggression when locals don't behave as they wish. The camera sometimes sneaks up on them, overhearing their brunch talk about "the old version of D.C.," in which "old" is a synonym for bad, and for poor, and for Black. But Jay keeps his distance, with a confused look on his face that often signifies anger as well.

He asks around about his childhood friends, some of whom he finds. But one named Demetrius is elusive, and Jay's insistence on asking about him makes people suspicious. Why do they keep evading his questions? Who is he to ask? Some, especially childhood friend Delonte (Dennis Lindsey), see things in Jay he can't own up to. The film student says he's come home to give voice to the voiceless. "Who's voiceless?," Delonte mockingly asks; days later, he implies that the film project is a kind of vampiric act, exploiting a community Jay happily abandoned long ago.

Jay may have left the place, but it didn't leave him. As he recalls his childhood, young versions of himself and his friends aren't confined to flashback scenes; they sometimes slide into the present-tense places he occupies. Elsewhere, city images of violence and festivity mesh together, sometimes nearly indistinguishable from each other.

Reconnecting with the past wouldn't be painless even if Q Street hadn't changed. Every how've-you-been conversation involves an update about who's just out of jail, and who's still in. No wonder Jay is enraged when he's offered weed by a white man who just got his delivery at the front gate, blithely participating in a drug trade that has sent generations of less privileged people to prison.

But that interaction suggests Jay's resentment is more focused than it really is. On multiple occasions, women around him have to keep him from leaping into a confrontation, answering verbal offenses with violence. No one asks if his quickness to anger has anything to do with the ease with which he left this place. But a haunting, beautiful scene near the film's end, in which Jay reconnects with a now imprisoned older neighbor, finds some of his survivor's guilt finally coming to the surface.

With the weight given to impressionistic and flashback passages here, it's impressive how convincingly adult cast members conjure recognizable characters out of relatively few lines — moreso when one learns that nearly no one here has acted in a feature before.

That applies only to the Black members of the cast, as Residue, centered on Jay's state of mind, feels no obligation to imagine that white gentrifiers are humans as well. Mark Jeevaratnam's camera generally avoids their gaze, even when they're trying to be neighborly, and often keeps them offscreen entirely. But any viewer politically inclined to enjoy moments of caricature may want to think twice: Residue's bitter final scenes suggest, however ambiguously, the limitations of seeing a whole community through such a crude filter.

Distributor: ARRAY Releasing (also available on Netflix)
Cast: Obinna Nwachukwu, Dennis Lindsey, Taline Stewart, Derron "Rizo" Scott, Melody Tally, Ramon Thompson
Director-Screenwriter-Editor-Producer: Merawi Gerima
Director of photography: Mark Jeevaratnam
Composer: Black Alley

90 minutes