Writer-director Merawi Gerima’s “Residue” immediately strikes a tone with its hip-hop-fueled opening images of protest on the streets of Washington, D.C. Though as leisurely as a summer's day, this kaleidoscopic memory film has an intensity of purpose that wants to knock you on your heels — or maybe harder — in its take on gentrification.
When Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a young Black filmmaker, returns from California to the District of Columbia neighborhood where he grew up, he’s hit by a wave of dysphoria that he never really shakes. It’s been awhile since he’s visited Q Street and the place has changed mightily with predatory real estate investors bombarding homeowners with cash offers to sell as new white residents flood in.
There's a sense of foreboding, the type one might feel in a science fiction or horror film (“Invasion of the Microaggressors!”). Something’s not right.
Moving into a tiny basement apartment in the building where he was raised, Jay bristles when someone welcomes him to the neighborhood. Fixed with a semi-permanent scowl and processing all the changes, he sets to writing a screenplay about the area. “The ... you want to shoot a movie about Q Street for”? his friend Delonte (Dennis Lindsey) asks dismissively.
As Jay catches up with his parents, LaVonne (Melody A. Tally) and Reggie (Ramon Thompson), his girlfriend Blue (Taline Stewart), friends from back in the day and the older gents who occupy a nearby front stoop, there’s a fraying sense of connection.
It’s as if Jay has been gone too long to matter. He asks about his childhood best friend, Demetrius, but nobody seems to know where he is, or if they do know they’re unwilling to say. The fate of a young Black man in America is heavily biased toward the tragic.
There are signs that the community’s bonds are intact even as it vanishes — Reggie goads his son into helping an elderly neighbor with her garden and encourages and offers to help Jay’s friend Mike (Derron "Rizo" Scott) to stay out of jail. People ask about one another’s families. The survivors here still care.
In writing his script, Jay mines the innocence of childhood but the pain and violence also bleed through in these fragmentary flashbacks. Gerima and cinematographer Mark Jeevaratnam use light, colors and rhythm to evoke moods and impressions. The intent is not nostalgia, it’s to memorialize Q Street’s existence.
Houses are gutted and remodeled; whole blocks disappear, replaced by mixed-use projects anchored by Crate & Barrels and Starbucks; the people are displaced, and not even art may be strong enough to preserve the remains.
A righteously angry meditation on people, place and time, “Residue” marks not just an arresting directing debut for Gerima, but a blunt statement on contemporary culture. Gentrification is not just about economics, it’s about erasure.