RESIDUE: FILM REVIEW
Merawi Gerima’s Residue violently pulls at the strings of nostalgia to tell a story about the destruction of a neighborhood, by following a protagonist who is forced to watch the fabric of his past tear away.
Residue follows Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a filmmaker who returns to Washington DC’s Q Street to make a film about the neighborhood he grew up in and its people. However, upon arriving, Jay realizes how much the neighborhood has changed, and the distant lens in which he now views this integral part of his past. Jay attempts to navigate the difficulty in uncovering the stories of childhood friends as well as with unraveling the dramatic changes that come with the gentrification of the neighborhood and its community.
Much of the film’s story is told through a reconstruction of hazy memories. I never thought I’d see a visual representation of that heart-sinking feeling of nostalgia, the one that happens when you are reminded of a place that completely stops you in your tracks, throwing you deep into a closet of memories you thought was forever locked. Gerima achieves this by making memories feel like grainy montages, where audio doesn’t match up entirely with lip movement and only selective moments are remembered with clarity. Jay’s trip back home is a purposeful stroll down memory lane, but not in the way he imagined. Instead of a faithful retelling of Q street and his childhood friends, Jay witnesses how the cracks in the sidewalks have reconfigured and the way conversations between strangers have gone from familiar to foreign.
As soon as Jay arrives back home, Jay is greeted by sale signs, voicemails from realtors looking to buy Jay’s childhood home, and white residents that view Q Street as one of those neighborhoods with “character.” In Residue, Jay’s past is translucently layered on top of this jarring present, as he watches strangers taint the purest of his childhood memories. The name of the film comes from a scene where a white resident stands idle as her dog poops on Jay’s lawn, unbothered by the situation. When Jay's mom, Miss Vonnie, yells at the resident, she defends herself, saying "I'm going to clean it up." Miss Vonnie responds with, "It'll still leave a residue."
It’s no coincidence that the concept of home is a central theme of many films that I’ve watched recently. The Last Black Man of San Francisco or Driveways come to mind. Although Driveways isn’t about the gentrification of a neighborhood, it still hits on the theme of revisiting spaces that have molded your upbringing and how you remember your past. We don’t realize that the bare bones of our childhood are composed of the spaces our small bodies occupied and roamed around -- whether it’s a physical home, a neighborhood, a town, or even a room. It’s a large reason why Jimmie from The Last Black Man of San Francisco is so stubborn and why Jay has such a hard time revisiting a place that only lives happily in his memories.
One of the film’s most complex themes is exploring the duality of film as both an intrusive, distant medium of art and as a weapon that can be used to tell powerful stories. Although from Jay’s eyes, he is giving voice to a neighborhood and its people, many of whom he believes to be “voiceless,” those that Jay grew up with view his project as somewhat insensitive and protruding. Who is Jay to say that the neighborhood even wants their story to be told? Why does Jay think he should be the one to tell it? Throughout his trip, Jay becomes more frustrated in his ability to not only tell the neighborhood’s story, but also to connect with those he thought were his people, as many are reluctant to give him information on even the whereabouts of Demetrius, his childhood best friend. There are also lingering feelings of subtle resentment towards Jay for leaving his neighborhood without so much as a trace. Most of Jay’s childhood friends are locked up, have moved away, or carry with them haunting memories of the last few years. There is an obvious disconnect.
Gerima excels in Residue by crafting a story that emphasizes the feelings of displacement all its characters carry with them in some form or another. The film asks the audience to consider what happens when memories of home supersede its reality, and when the only way to cope with its destruction, brought on by the forces of capitalism, is to live in the past.