Venice 2020 review: Residue (Merawi Gerima)

Welcome to the neighborhood.” But what does ‘neighborhood’ mean when it is no longer your own, when the fabric of a community has been ripped apart and replaced by something you don’t recognize yourself in anymore? The welcoming party in this case is a white man and the one welcomed is Jay, the black protagonist of Merawi Gerima’s evocative and quietly powerful feature-length debut Residue. In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ensuing outcry of ‘black lives matter’ that forcefully reiterated the underprivileged position of black people, Gerima’s film couldn’t have come at a better time as it highlights the issues black communities face. The gentrification of previously predominantly black neighborhoods as highlighted by the seemingly innocuous line above is one of them, but Residue is rife with examples of aggressions big and small that negatively weigh on black individuals and their community as a whole.

Played by Obinna Nwachukwu with a simmering anger that threatens to boil over, Jay is an aspiring filmmaker who returns to the old Washington, D.C. neighborhood he left when he was a pre-teen. What he returns to is no longer the neighborhood he recognizes though. The forces of gentrification have hit this formerly close-knit community, with white people moving into previously black-owned homes and estate agents aggressively trying to acquire more. Many of his former childhood friends are scattered to the wind, either incarcerated or dead, or simply vanished. The black residents that remained have become wary of outsiders, and to Jay’s annoyance he is seen as one of those. When he expresses his desire to make a film about his old haunts he is met with suspicion and downright hostility, and his quest to locate an old friend is hampered by an unwillingness to help. No longer recognizing the place he grew up in and no longer feeling part of his community, Jay grows increasingly frustrated. “This is my home“, he shouts at a white man in an explosive scene near the end of the film. But is it really still his home, or has he become an ‘other’ that is clinging onto a memory of the past?

Memories play a big role in Residue, as Jay’s increasing anger at being regarded as an outsider leaves room for memories to blend with real life. To this end Gerima makes excellent use of the film’s soundscape and Mark Jeevaratnam’s deep-toned cinematography. The film continuously oscillates between oppressive and joyful using low vantage points and grainy stock, and juxtaposing the night and dark interiors of Jay’s present with the sundrenched exteriors of Jay’s memories. Gunshots alternate with fireworks as background sound to the same effect. This shapes Jay’s visual and aural state of mind to the point of intended disorientation of both the protagonist and the viewer. Gerima also smartly employs framing and lensing to make this a decidedly black story despite the ongoing gentrification in Jay’s neighborhood. White characters are anonymized on the edges of the frame, often shot from behind or fleetingly, in an inversed marginalization that powers the story but is also reflective of Jay’s point of view with regards to these ‘invaders’. These people are oblivious to what they do to a community of color, superficially discussing ‘their’ neighborhood in total ignorance of what their moving in has caused, which is part of the cause of Jay’s frustration. In a scene that gives the film its title a white owner’s dog defecates on the lawn of Jay’s old family friend. When confronted the dog owner says she will clean it up, to which the friend replies, “It still leaves a residue.” This can be read as as a metaphor for the residue of his old neighborhood left on Jay even after ‘cleaning’ himself of it, but also the residue one community leaves on another.

Another layer woven into the film is Jay’s education level. As a college graduate the neighborhood is proud of him, people assert him. But in an interview at Slamdance Festival earlier this year (where the film won two awards) Gerima said that there is often a barrier for college students who return to their old community, trying to reconcile with the fact that their education gives them privileges that the people they left behind will never have. This duality is another hurdle for Jay to take, especially because it also makes him an outsider.

Residue neatly weaves all these issues together into a tale of oppression, one that often is not even deliberate but still is devastating for the progress of black communities. This is powerfully underlined in the film’s last sequence, in which Jay makes a decision that will likely determine his life’s path. It’s a sobering ending, one punctuated by racial ignorance in the final shot. Gerima’s film comes at the right moment even if not planned that way, and combined with a Venice selection this will hopefully give his strong debut the attention it deserves. It is unlikely another American film will come along this year that so poignantly lays out black struggle.