White faces are typically obscured in Residue, Merawi Gerima’s impressive feature debut. He either leaves them out of focus, cuts them from the frame, shoots their silhouettes or positions the camera over their shoulders, providing evidence that they exist without identifying them. Whiteness is acknowledged in the film, but not visually. Residue is about colonization, and through the creative choices he makes, Gerima suggests that colonization stories don’t actually have to be about the colonizers themselves. Instead, he maintains a personal touch over the picture and the narrative, about a homecoming that goes slowly awry over the course of a 90 minute duration.
Gerima’s protagonist is Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a filmmaker aspirant who makes the long sojourn from L.A. back to his childhood home, Washington DC’s Q Street, which resembles his childhood home no longer: The aesthetic has whitened up, the caucasian presence palpable even before a whiny prick calling himself Jake chides Jay for double parking on the street and playing his music too loud. “Don’t make me have to call the cops,” says the prick off screen from camera left as Jay stands stunned at the blatant display of bigoted entitlement. Q Street is where he lived. This was once his block. But what was his isn’t his anymore. It’s Jake’s, plus the ravening pack of predatory realtors waving cash offers in front of residents’ faces in an effort to squeeze them out of their own homes. Make way for Chad and Karen.
Gerima knits together a stark neorealism with dreamy recollections of bygone days. Those days weren’t “better,” per se, because a youth spent observing violence and dodging bullets on the poverty line isn’t “better” at all, but they were at least days where Jay felt he belonged. In Jay’s present, he’s extraterrestrial, dramatized both through the clay-red filter used for choice exterior shots, giving Q Street a faint Martian veneer, and his interactions with old familiar faces on the block. L.A. has changed Jay: He’s earnest and affable, unguarded, a wide-open book, which gives his friends and neighbors pause, especially when he starts asking questions about his best buddy Demetrius. Everyone gives him side eye and wonders aloud (but out of hearing range) if he’s a cop looking for an arrest. Residue puts Jay in his own no man’s land, a foreigner in the same place where he came of age.
The film spotlights the very particular pain inflicted by that very particular wound, each beat cranking his gasket inch by inch, setting him up for an eventual and sadly inevitable explosion. When he finds what looks like peace about an hour in, the peace is a figment of his imagination. He plays catch-up with Dion (Jamal Graham) in the forest, two knuckleheads reminiscing over boyhood against the backdrop of nature’s serenity, but the camera cuts their woodland stroll with scenes of the pair sitting in a jail’s visiting room, Jay holding tears in his eyes while looking into Dion’s. The interaction doesn’t quite break Jay. After enduring so many similarly heartbreaking and infuriating interactions, it’s just one more onion for the soup. But it is the penultimate straw to snap his temper, because even a person that even-keeled has a limit.
Gerima delineates that limit through grainy images and hypnotic fractal photography, Residue bleeding through the porous border between today and yesterday with a free-flow aesthetic, recalling movies like RaMell Ross’ 2018 masterwork Hale County This Morning, This Evening, sans the documentarian bent. Still, Residue functions as a document in its own right regardless. It’s a fiction, true, but a fiction that Gerima builds out of his own experience, as well as the experience of the people he grew up with in D.C., a semi-autobiographical work of astonishing vulnerability.
Director: Merawi Gerima
Writer: Merawi Gerima
Starring: Obinna Nwachukwu, Dennis Lindsey, Taline Stewart, Derron Scott, Jamal Graham
Release Date: September 18, 2020 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.