The genre of films about filmmakers is both hackneyed and immensely stimulating. It places stringent demands on filmmakers because it for...
The genre of films about filmmakers is both hackneyed and immensely stimulating. It places stringent demands on filmmakers because it foregrounds their ideas about their art along with their practice of it, and invites self-aggrandizement along with self-reflection. Merawi Gerima’s first feature, “Residue” (which appeared on Netflix on Friday), is a notable new entry in the genre, because of the deeper, fuller grid of experience and history onto which it maps the protagonist’s—and Gerima’s own—activity, and because of the severe self-questioning that the movie modestly embodies. It’s the story of a Black filmmaker who has been living in California and who returns to his home town of Washington, D.C., to make a film set in his former neighborhood. (Gerima, studied film at the University of Southern California before returning to D.C., where he grew up, to make “Residue.”)
“Residue” is a notable exception in part because it belongs to another genre, the prodigal’s return—more specifically, the you-can’t-go-home-again subgenre—and, here, too, Gerima’s vision is both intimate and broad, at once personal and societal and cinema-centric. The protagonist, Jarell (Obinna Nwachukwu), whom everyone calls Jay, arrives in his family’s D.C. neighborhood after many years away and finds that things have changed. Jay, who’s Black, sees the effects of gentrification at once—he sees white people on streets where he’d never seen any while growing up. Driving a white pickup truck, Jay reaches the apartment where he’ll be staying and gets hassled by a young white man, who threatens to call the police on him; he finds persistent real-estate agents and investors offering cash—in person, on flyers, by phone—to Black residents, including his parents, for their homes. (His parents—played by Melody A. Tally and Ramon Thompson—are renting out a room to a young white man.)
Jay has come back to his old neighborhood in order to make a film about the people he knows there, about the Black community that he’s from and that’s dwindling, being dispersed—seemingly being occupied—by an influx of wealthier white residents. Even before his arrival, he’s haunted with doubts (expressed in voice-over) about the usefulness of his project; after he gets to town, he finds his plans, even his very presence, far more complicated than he’d expected. Despite the warm welcome that he soon receives—from older men who’d known him as a child, and from his childhood friends, especially Delonte (Dennis Lindsey), who hasn’t left the neighborhood and has led a troubled life—Jay is taken as something of an outsider who doesn’t know, who can’t know, what things have been like for those he left behind and lost contact with. What’s more, he’s viewed with suspicion, which is aroused primarily by his earnest, insistent questions about his former best friend, Demetrius, who isn’t there and about whom nobody’s very willing to talk. Is Jay intrusive? Insensitive? The police?
The movie is conceived with space in mind, and it’s prominent from the start; Gerima films with wide-screen images (the cinematographer is Mark Jeevaratnam) that are filled with city buildings and vistas and that, with canny framings and choice of lenses, either hold characters in those spaces or detach them from their surroundings. Far from merely telling the story of Jay and his neighborhood, “Residue” creates, for its characters and its setting, a distinctive cinematographic identity, one that unites the crafts of movies and reveals the unity of direction, editing, and dramaturgy. It’s a subjective film that delves deep into Jay’s memories of growing up, by way of footage, from what looks like home videos and home movies, showing scenes of his childhood—his friends, his family, the sense of community, and also the gang violence and police oppression that ravaged it—and with inner voices and imagined events, too.
Gerima’s storytelling, as Jay makes his way through his neighborhood and attempts to renew lost connections, has a similar fusion of the intensely particular and the fragmentary. Jay is sharing an apartment with his girlfriend, Blue (Taline Stewart), from whom he’s seemingly been separated for a while, but the warmth and the intimacy of their relationship (also distinctively depicted) has no backstory attached to it. Neither, for that matter, does the over-all matter of Jay’s long-term absence; his seemingly slender contact with the community in which he was raised, including with his parents; and the general breakdown of the thread of local updates about family and friends. The effect is to render Jay a figure of poignant paradox. He’s an uprooted man whose memories are deep and strong, who works to honor the people who inhabit them, but whose sense of the present day is something of a tabula rasa—and whose blanks of up-to-date knowledge are as much an inevitable part of whatever film he’ll make as they are an inevitable part of the failure that he’s forced to confront.
While averting explanations of basic practicalities, “Residue” thrusts other specifics—of the sort usually left out or overshadowed, from the periphery to the center—to the foreground. Jay learns that one longtime friend, Mike (Derron Scott), is newly released from prison and struggling with the lure of gang life, and that Delonte, unbeknownst to Jay, had endured horrors in childhood from which he still hasn’t recovered. Yet, if there’s something blank about the slate with which Jay arrives in town, there’s a strong suggestion that it’s due to his own efforts at erasure, as seen in a remarkable, moving subplot involving another childhood friend named Dion (Jamal Graham), which nearly takes over the film and expands its purview into daringly expressive realms of fantasy while considering, with bitter directness, the calculatedly cruelty of the carceral system.
Jay returns home, to make his film, with a well-intentioned innocence that’s revealed to him, in all its presumptuousness, in a series of scenes that also reflect Gerima’s fierce cinematic imagination. A nighttime reunion with Delonte, from opposite sides of a chain-link fence, is punctuated by a visit from a local policeman, who’s never seen but whose aggressive questioning is met by Jay and Delonte in drastically different ways, which suggest the men’s drastically different places in the community and its presumptive pecking order. Delonte skeptically questions Jay about his plans for the movie, and reacts with quiet derision to Jay’s earnest answer: “Just trying to give a voice to the voiceless, man.” Delonte responds, derisively, “Who’s voiceless?” Later, he offers a much more scathing view of Jay’s intentions and character, in a scene that’s written, performed, and filmed with an awe-inspiring power.
Throughout, Jay witnesses a community that’s being torn apart from within. The pressures of white supremacy from society at large have, in effect, moved in, and the aggressions and assumptions of new neighbors who are often anything but neighborly (and whose occasional attempts at being neighborly are equally dubious) are constant sources of inner tension and reckless provocation. Gun violence and gang violence—the self-destructive turmoil of a community that’s isolated, deprived, and besieged—persist. And, when Jay returns home, it isn’t only his blanked-out consciousness that gets filled in—it’s a seemingly suppressed rage that’s only exacerbated by the revelation of his own inadequacy, artistic impotence, and emotional failures. Jay endures, subtly but critically, the destruction of his self-image, which, he discovers, was built on a void, and which is mirrored by the voiding, through gentrification, of the community on which his identity was founded. The furious and mind-wrenching tensions that Jay faces—and that Gerima evokes as his own—are inseparable from those of his neighborhood, of the community at large, of American society over all. The failures built into a film such as the one that Jay plans—and of which Gerima essentially accuses himself—aren’t those of filmmakers alone. “Residue” ’s subject is, inescapably, ongoing collective failures of an enormous, historical scope.