Merawi Gerima's debut film is an astonishing, beautiful and transporting piece about the links between memory and community
The feeling of “home” is one that’s very difficult to put into words, let alone convey to an audience. The most remarkable achievement of Merawi Gerima’s entirely astonishing debut film Residue is that it manages to do exactly that. It tells a specific, immersive story, laser focused on the gentrification of Washington DC, but the emotions Gerima evokes with his gorgeously imaginative portrayal of memories and dreams will transport you right back to your own childhood home. It's a slow burn that grows exponentially in power, long after the credits roll, announcing the arrival of an awe-inspiring new talent.
Our guide through DC is Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a filmmaker returning to his old neighbourhood from California after an absence of 15 years, with an eye on developing a project based on his own childhood. He’s excited to get back, but the reality that greets him is a cold one. Many of the black families he knew have been turfed out by young white people, and local property developers are aggressively pursuing the remaining black residents to sell up and ship out. These white neighbours are less members of the community than they are an occupying force. They bray about all the culture that “used to” be in DC while aggressively demanding that Jay turn his music down, even crossing the street to avoid him, all the while wielding the potentially lethal threat of police intervention.
Gerima’s writing perfectly balances the arrogance and ignorance of the new arrivals, while his direction keeps them at the periphery. Dialogue comes from out of frame, or faces are obscured. We see these people as Jay does, anonymous menaces, refusing to integrate with a world they chose to barge in to. It’s not just them that trouble Jay, though – his long absence has made his old friends suspicious and resentful of him, and traumatic memories intrude in both his waking and sleeping moments.
Nwachukwu gives an outstanding performance, becoming more and more brittle as the disappointments and aggressions pile up, until a snap becomes inevitable. In perhaps the film’s standout scene, Jay visits an old friend and mentor of his in prison, and as they talk through the glass, they’re transported to the woodlands they used to play in. It’s a beautiful moment, and when it’s broken by an insistent guard, the cut back to Nwachukwu’s teary-eyed face seems to shatter the screen into a thousand pieces.
Memory and reality blend seamlessly like this throughout Residue, Jay’s adult and child selves sometimes inhabiting the same frame. The bustling life of the neighbourhood as it was comes up against the recently installed wall of quiet banality, and the warm colour palette dulls. These techniques could be intrusive, or even trite, in the wrong hands, but they’re deployed with such skill and craftsmanship that they are instead beautifully intuitive. Gerima captures what childhood memories feel like, and this powerful connection to a past that can’t be regained adds immense weight to his exploration of community, and how much easier it is to destroy than build.
There is a sense of despair as the film goes on, from both Jay and Gerima himself. Jay has to come to terms that he aided, in a small way, the destruction of his community by abandoning it, and that his efforts to make a movie that “gives a voice to the voiceless” are pointless vanity. Jay’s old friends reject the idea that they need saving, and even if they did, a movie – one that would no doubt look quite a lot like Residue – certainly wouldn’t be enough. It’s a resolutely realistic thesis statement, perfectly in line with the rest of a movie that, for all its stylistic magic, can’t in good conscience conjure up a happy ending.
Yet one wonders if Gerima isn’t being just a little too harsh on himself. Yes, Residue is hardly going to spark a social revolution, but it’s so accomplished that it will affect a change in at least some of its viewers. After watching it, I found myself looking at my own current neighbourhood through a new set of eyes and asking if it truly felt like home. Befitting its title, Residue is the kind of film that really lingers with you.
Residue is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch