At the center of Residue, writer-director Merawi Gerima’s debut feature, there’s a crisis born out of a familiar ritual: coming home. Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) is a D.C. native who’s just returned home from college in Los Angeles. The experience is immediately rendered strange, right in front of his own doorstep. He’s blasting music from his car — a comfort so familiar to home that, through a trick of Gerima’s sound design, he (and we) barely notice it blasting. But a white neighbor — another new concept for Jay — definitely notices. The neighbor berates him on the street. “Don’t make me have to call the cops,” the man threatens, before reminding the stunned Jay that, by the way, he’s also double-parked.
That’s the first strike. It is far from the last. On its surface, Residue — which is streaming on Netflix — is a depiction of Jay’s brief time back at home, on Q Street. He’s planning to write a script based on his time growing up there. But in just the way that Jay has inevitably changed and grown during his time away in California, his old neighborhood has also, just as inevitably, changed. These conflicts, twined and inseparable, form the backbone of this fluid, memory-inflected film, which is so acute in its detail, at times, that its sense of homecoming is genuinely felt. This is a story related as much through the drama at its core as through moods and sensations, all the felt memories unlocked by a return home — down to the very pointed and particular sound of a clothing line creaking under the weight of wet clothes.
But not so fast. Gerima’s eye is equally trained on all the minor slights that add up to a prevailing sense of alienation — and alienation, not the warmth of a return home, is what dominates this movie. This is, to be sure, a movie sensitive to the problem of gentrification.
And we, alongside Jay, are reminded of this in myriad, sometimes even surreal, ways. In one interlude, we’re treated to the overheard chatter of white brunchers in the city, recent transplants smitten with their talk of the “old D.C.” and the “crack houses” across the street. We see Jay’s mother shoo a young white woman and her dog, who’s mid-poop, off of her front lawn — an event that gets so far under Jay’s skin he seems almost moved to violence. We watch as a white neighbor invites the woman in Jay’s life, Blue (Taline Stewart), to a Fourth of July party, and the moment is suffused with enough latent awkwardness that the invitation, in itself, is no longer the point of the scene. It becomes a scene about the line one is awkwardly forced to toe with gentrifiers. How do you shake the hand of someone whose arrival seemingly begets the end of your way of life?
Residue is not a road map to answering questions like these — for the better. It’s far more interested in the pain of its own absences and contradictions. Gradually, over the course of its slim (90 minutes) but dense runtime, Residue pieces together the fabric of Jay’s childhood — the violence, to be sure, but also the friendships. Jay grew up with young black boys who, in adulthood, lead lives that run the gamut from prison to college. We learn the most about two of Jay’s closest friends, Delonte (played as an adult by the excellent Dennis Lindsey) and Demetrius, whose whereabouts no one seems to want Jay to know. Jay keeps asking people about Demetrius, and from the very first people he asks he’s met with suspicion.
This suspicion proves key to so much of what Gerima is attempting to address here. It also gives the story a dash of intrigue, just not about Demetrius. It could be that the man’s whereabouts are genuinely mysterious, that people sincerely do not know where he is. But the movie leaves us with the sense that people want to answer Jay’s question with a question: Who wants to know? It’s a question one poses to an outsider — a status that Jay doesn’t yet realize he shares.
This proves true in the case of Delonte, above all. The first time these men see each other, the two men are interrupted by a cop. We never see the cop. But from how “down” he sounds, or wants to sound, you sense he might be, not only black, but from the neighborhood. Maybe they even grew up with him. Yet here he is. None of this is spoken within the scene, mind you. But just look at the way Gerima has staged and structured it all: a black cop arriving as Jay is, not for the first time, asking too many questions about what he feels is his own past. The cop, his blue lights blaring, is a way of seeing Jay through Delonte’s eyes. Delonte fully lays his cards out later in the movie, when he describes an idea for a script that, it’s impossible not to notice, is a critique of Jay’s whole schtick. Lindsey, as Delonte, performs the scene with the kind of submerged, plaintive rage that can only have been born of a sense of betrayal. The more apparent this sense of betrayal, if that’s the word for it, the more painful the movie starts to feel.
Gerima, who is the son of famed L.A. Rebellion director Haile Gerima and fellow filmmaker Shirikiana Aina, knows how to make use of a performance like this, how to ground it in a reality that the rest of the film frequently undercuts. It all makes for a stimulating, enthralling mix. Gerima pulls in as much as he can, down to a surreal interlude in which blood not only pools upward from the concrete, but does so in images that are flipped upside down. His visual touches are conspicuous. The white D.C. residents depicted in the movie are largely shown at low angles, often reduced to and anonymized by shots of their legs. Other, more intimate moments have the benefit of more intimate filmmaking, in scenes that feel more interested in the particulars of what people have to say to each other, of the histories that two old friends can tap into in merely an instant, than in mapping out clean, clear, screenplay-friendly drama.
It isn’t simply that Gerima resists humanizing the white characters while overtly doing the opposite for its black characters — though, for this story, that wouldn’t be out of pocket. Rather it’s almost as if Jay cannot wrap his mind around the fact of these new white neighbors, and so the film makes little visual sense of them. They’re a presence. Whereas the face of a childhood friend, grown up and recently returned from prison, can anchor an entire scene, in Gerima’s hands.
Because this is a film that flows rather than catapults through its plot, the stuff that another movie would pull off too neatly — more voice-over, more Hollywood-style flashbacks — here feels ephemeral and slippery. The textures Gerima generates are as rigorous as they are personal. The filmmaker recently told Vanity Fair that Residue was inspired by a personal experience, when he left D.C. for a year and found, upon his return in 2016, that things had changed. “It was too much for my system to take,” he told the magazine. “I was going down this dark path of pure anger with no outlet.” And that was after only a year — a span eerily reflected in the movie’s own production history. Gerima shot a first draft of the film’s script in the summer of 2017; he finished the movie next summer.
Residue is the kind of movie to make you wonder what may have changed in D.C. during even the short span of its own making. Gentrification works quickly; it arrives buoyed by a whirlwind sense of the rug being swept from under residents’ feet. These are details Gerima builds into the movie based on his experience of leaving for just one year. Jay is returning after time in college. One can only imagine his shock.
Residue makes it so that we don’t have to imagine. It also, tellingly, seems to ask similar questions of itself and its own making — of Gerima’s, and not Jay’s, right to make a movie of this material. “You brought the only weapon that you had,” a voice — presumably Jay’s — asks early on. “Who were you about to shoot, Jay? Did you think a script could make a difference? You thought a film could save us? Or did you see yourself as an archaeologist coming to unearth our bones from the concrete?”
That line about archaeology is, like archaeology itself, digging something up: The sense that Jay is an onlooker and outsider, rather than a man of this place; that he is not of these bones, but rather returning home merely to make use of them. This presents a painful question, and a necessary one. It’s what gives this film a bruising self-awareness. That awareness, and the deftness with which Gerima evokes it in the lives of his characters, sets Residue apart.