Young Black Filmmaker Shines In 'Residue'
As titles go, Residue does not bode well. The word “residue” feels like what’s left in a bucket after it’s emptied. The word doesn’t make you think that optimism or a good time await us just around the bend, and Residue is not a happy movie. But it is a beautiful film, and a touching one from a young first-time Black director, Merawi Gerima who grew up in Washington, D.C. but has Ethiopian roots. His father, the celebrated documentary director Haile Gerima came to the U.S. from Ethiopia and has been encouraging Black American filmmakers — like his son — since the 1970s.
In the story, Jay (Nigerian-American actor Obinna Nwachukwu) returns to his childhood neighborhood in Washington from film school in Los Angeles. It’s a disappointing homecoming. Northeast Washington is undergoing major gentrification — the characteristic old Washington homes with stairs leading up from the street to the front porches, and low wrought iron fences and gates are being demolished. Now, there’s a lot of chain link fence. Leaflets and phone calls from developers offer to buy the homes in the neighborhood where Jay grew up. Where those single family homes stood there are now gaping construction pits for the coming high-rises.
Parallel to those changes, Jay’s childhood friends are either dead, recently out of prison or wandering the neighborhood, rootless.
Gerima says that the film began as a bitter attack on gentrification, but slowly developed into a richer story. Residue has lost its original one-note anger and become complex and nuanced. Gerima weaves together present moment action with childhood memories in what look like home movies.
In the present, Jay is writing a film script about the neighborhood. He’s become an observer, more than a participant. He talks to people he used to know well; he takes notes and watches. He wants to find his childhood best friend Demetrious, and he thinks back to tender moments with his friend and his friend’s grandmother.
At other times, Jay can be abrasive or hostile. He disdains the young well-to-do whites moving into the neighborhood and gets furious when his girlfriend goes to a newcomer’s 4th of July party.
The depth of Residue comes with how potently it sees into just who Jay was and who he has become. As much as the film is about how gentrification obliterates the history and traditions of the Black people who lived here, it also sees how hard it is for any expatriate to return to what he considers home. It’s a tough lesson for Jay to see that while he may think of himself as a long-time member of this community, others do not.
An old friend tells Jay that he went away — and all manner of life has taken place in the meantime. The guilt and anguish get to him — you see it in the chaotic strife in the nighttime shots. And in Jay’s restless searching.
But what a mixture of textures in Residue. Late in the film Jay taps out a rhythm with his hands on his chest and knee. It feels like the most primal, ancient music, deeply felt and expressive. The images of Jay and Demetrious when they were kids embody everything wonderful about the friendship of young boys — and make you ache with the telling frustration that Jay can’t now find his friend.
Residue is a stunning film. It contains the terrible and the beautiful, simultaneous moments of yearning and self-hatred, hope, and regret.