As someone who moved back to his hometown a few years ago, Residue cut me deep. Much like the protagonist of this story, I returned to my old stomping grounds and found that what I once remembered fondly was long gone, my friends and loved ones didn’t exactly greet me with open arms, and a surprising abundance of white people had moved in. This movie hit me like a ton of bricks, the kind that’s gonna be used to build some swanky apartment complex — just as soon as that elementary school has been bulldozed.
Residue (on Netflix and in selected theaters this Friday) is the debut work of writer-director Merawi Gerima, the son of Ethiopian-born, LA Rebellion filmmaker Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993) — and, yes, the boy is a chip off the old, Black-and-proud block.
It’s also semi-autobiographical: USC film student Jay (Obi Nwachukwu) returns home to his old Washington, D.C. neighborhood to write a movie, which Gerima did after a stint at USC film school. Immediately, things aren’t exactly as they seem. While moving into his temporary living quarters, located above his parents’ old home, he’s greeted by a white dude who tells him to turn down the go-go music in his truck, which he also mentions is double-parked. As for his parents, they’re out in the ‘burbs. But, as he soon learns, even they can’t escape the phone calls and notices taped to the front door from people who want to buy their home.
Jay spends most of his time trying to get reacquainted with his old buddies, but that’s no lovefest. He tries to locate his across-the-street BFF Demetrius, but no one wants to give up the info, especially the tormented Delonte (an icy Dennis Lindsey). Despite the fact that Jay is visibly struggling, Delonte feels he was “out in Cali, living the life,” and is bitter that Jay left while Delonte and his boys were still in this jungle — scratching and surviving, as the old Good Times theme goes.
As much as Jay reminisces — via hazy, muffled memories — about the carefree past he once had, riding his bike and going to the mountains with his boys, the noisy construction, casual racism from white folk and overall urban decay keeps snapping him out of it.
All this makes Jay one angry, conflicted guy — and Residue one angry, conflicted movie. Jay generally hates white people for muscling in on his turf (Nwachukwu always has a scowl ready for any pale person he sees in khakis), ready to pave away his past and turn it into another gentrified haven. But it’s his own people that often give him the most pain and grief, which would explain why he got the hell out of there in the first place. After all, D.C. is still a town where you can get knocked out and your pockets run, friends can easily vanish — either from gunshots or a court sentencing — and cops are always around to snap on the cuffs. (In one jarring, quick-cutting sequence, Gerima shows all of that, complete with an upside-down shot of a sidewalk oozing with blood while white ladies are having brunch nearby, joking about not wanting to live in a crackhouse.) And yet, this is something he can’t admit to himself or his girl (Taline Stewart), who’s wondering why she’s even there. Man, the ‘hood has really screwed this dude up.
Residue is a furious, ferocious film, both a love letter and a middle finger to the one-and-only Chocolate City. Gerima makes such assured, calculated moves behind the camera (he and cinematographer/colorist Mark Jeevaratnam come up with shots that can go sweaty to chaotic to artfully abstract at a moment’s notice), it’s no wonder Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing snapped it up after it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.
Unlike Blindspotting (2018) and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), recent debut features about gentrification which peppered their melancholy, racial-erasure narratives with quirky, satirical laughs, there is nothing funny about Residue. In fact, you could say it even presents the argument that some places need to disappear, especially to people who’ve outgrown them. When it comes to hellish ‘hoods like the one portrayed in this movie — to borrow a line from the last, good Star Wars movie — it’s time to let the old things die.