Residue is a fleeting and haunting lament for what is lost to gentrification, and other tolls on black life in America. But at the same, it’s exhilarating and monumental, laced with the sensation that we’re discovering a bold and sensitive new voice.
Writer and director Merawi Gerima’s debut, released by Ava DuVernay’s independent film collective Array, tells a prodigal son story, about a man returning to his old stomping grounds. And in that story, Gerima experiments with performance and vérité, intimate narrative and poetic abstractions. His artistry is thoughtful. But more than anything, it’s emotional.
Gerima comes from black film-making royalty. His father is Haile Gerima, the Bush Mama and Sankofa director who collaborated in the late 60s with fellow black UCLA graduates like Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. There are traces of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in Residue, as well as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. That’s just one way the past echoes throughout the young Gerima’s debut.
We can assume the film’s lead character is fashioned after the young director himself, at least on a practical level. Obi Nwachukwu plays Jay, a film-maker who travels from Los Angeles to Washington DC. He wants to make a movie about DC’s Q Street, his childhood home and the friends he used to roam with.
Residue’s grave terms are spoken early on. A disembodied voiceover asks whether Jay’s camera is a weapon trying to save the community or whether the film-maker is actually an archaeologist coming to unearth bones from the concrete. As if resigned to the inevitable, the film documents black culture in the city as if it needs to be fossilized on camera. The opening is a rush of images and sounds from a DC block party. The black community dances on the street while local rap group CCB’s Roll Call bumps on the soundtrack. Then come the police and white residents walking their dogs. That prologue sums things up.
Upon arriving in his old neighbourhood, Jay is “greeted” by a white resident who tells him to turn down the volume on his truck stereo. That command is followed by a loaded warning should he not comply: “Don’t make me have to call the cops.”
For sale signs litter the street. Realtors leave repeat voicemails at Jay’s parents’ house, eagerly offering cash for their home. Jay lurches through the neighborhood, his brow permanently furrowed, as if he’s blinded by all the whiteness he’s seeing. But Gerima purposefully obscures white faces or keeps them out of frame. Unlike these neighborhoods, his film centres black people.
Jay searches for friends at the homes or on the corners or stoops they once occupied. Some moved. Others are locked up. The spaces in Residue feel full with absence. They carry memories, and the film has a hypnotic way of slipping in and out of them. At times, scenes have an impressionistic autumn sheen that borders on antique, like the present is rushing to become the past. At others, they have that 16mm grain or digital video motion smoothing. Residue’s aesthetic is as nimble as its state of mind. Moments fade into muffled memories and one memory bleeds into another. People too are violently turned into memories. And like Jay, we desperately search for something or someone to hold on to.
Gerima does a lot with a little. And he’s supported by an exceptional cast made up of mostly non-professional actors who, put simply, own these roles. In the most powerful scenes, the performers are quiet, using their eyes and breathing to communicate feelings, anxieties and empathy. They show an understanding among black men that some words just don’t need to be spoken.
Dennis Lindsey is a standout among them. His Delonte is a survivor hardened by experience. He’s suspicious of Jay, whose probing questions come off as opportunistic. When Jay tries to explain that he wants to make a film to give a voice to the voiceless, Delonte snaps back, guardedly: “Who’s voiceless?” Delonte sounds hostile and looks distant, but there’s an unforgettable sense of guarded warmth in Lindsey’s performance. And there’s overwhelming guilt rattling around in Nwachukwu’s Jay, which perhaps belongs to Gerima. At the very least, it suggests the film-maker’s cognizance of his own privilege and his relationship to a space that he left behind.
Despite spending his childhood on Q Street, Jay is as much an intruding presence as the new residents who dubbed the area “Noma”. His subsequent emotions are messy and complicated. Gerima wades through them confidently. His film doesn’t say much that hasn’t already been said in work by Burnett and Lee. But as the racial reckoning of the past few months made clear, these issues persist. And Gerima explores new ways to dwell on them. If nothing else, the feelings he drums up in Residue linger.