Merawi Gerima’s directorial debut Residue, which ARRAY Now released on Netflix last Friday, is an impassioned ode to a rapidly gentrifying Washington D.C..
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Merawi Gerima comes from a lineage of pioneering Black filmmakers: his parents are Haile Gerima (Bush Mama) and Shirikiana Aina (Brick by Brick), whose films Gerima says he “draw[s] from heavily.” Like his parents, Gerima is unafraid to tell stories about Black life in America that don’t compromise on anger. On a micro level, his first feature, Residue, is about gentrification in Washington D.C., but in the macro, it views gentrification as a symptom of a larger problem: the racial violence, both physical and microaggressions, that pervades America.
Residue is unmistakably semi-autobiographical: it follows filmmaker Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), who returns to his home of Q Street in D.C. after some time away at film school, only to find the place unrecognisable. “It made so much sense to just let it be what it was and go as meta as we possibly can, to make it literally about my life,” explained Gerima, who shot on the actual Q Street where he grew up. Although Nwachukwu is a professional actor playing a part, the film is populated with real people. In Gerima’s words, “Everyone from my life is in the film, either behind the camera or in front of the camera.”
The film draws a line between various forms of racial oppression. The narrative of Residue is loose; the film follows Jay as he visits old haunts and reunites with old friends, but finds that neither are as they used to be. The places Jay used to know are no longer there because of gentrification, just as the people he used to know are gone because they were incarcerated or murdered by the police. These two different assaults on Black life are symptomatic of the same problem — racism — and they have the same effect of warping Q Street beyond recognition.
The sensory beauty of Residue shines in flashback scenes to Jay’s childhood, which reflect Jay’s fond memories of the Q Street he once knew. Gerima plays with visual patterns and grains to evoke the hazy texture of memory. He shoots these flashbacks on 8mm film and superimposes a swirling, circular effect in post that has the effect of keeping one point of the image in focus while blurring the rest, like a memory Jay is straining to remember. The sound in these flashbacks is so vivid, too, and distinctly different from the sound of modern day Q Street, which is clogged with grating construction noises.
Gerima told me, “The film is an archive of the community that I want to exist as an actual archive” — through a fictionalised story, he’s created a document of Q Street that captures it before it changes even more. In a Zoom interview from Venice, where the film showed in the Venice Days programme, Gerima noted, “I’m in Venice right now, seeing 1000s of years of the Roman Empire’s history everywhere you turn. Black people don’t have that.” In the absence of architectural monuments to Black history, Residue is deeply attuned to the small and personal ways Black people archive their own history, from old chairs to letters to the family photos Jay’s parents project onto the wall. Residue itself is one such artifact.
I spoke to Gerima over Zoom just after he returned home from Venice, where the film received a Special Mention in the Venice Days section. Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, ARRAY Now, released the film internationally on Netflix last Friday, as well as in select U.S. theatres.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Residue?
Merawi Gerima: As I got older, I started hearing bad news about the folks I’d grown up with, some of my best friends. That was always swirling around in my head. In 2016, I went back to D.C. after about a year away. Seeing the way everything had changed so much put me in revenge mode, wanting to write a script that dug into everything I hated about what was going on. At a certain point, that script merged with this initial idea of me looking for my friends.
7R: When did the meta-textual element of the main character being a filmmaker come in?
Merawi Gerima: I was in D.C., and we had pretty much already started filming. Up to that point, it still hadn’t been decided that Jay was a filmmaker, because I had been trying really hard to make sure I changed people’s names and certain locations; I didn’t want it to be 100% [autobiographical]. I felt like making him a filmmaker would, at that point, [make the autobiography] official.
Actually, me and my cinematographer, Mark Jeevaratnam, were talking about the fact that we were shooting in my neighbourhood, and everyone from my life is in the film either behind the camera or in front of the camera. It made so much sense to just let it be what it was and go as meta as we possibly can, to make it literally about my life.
7R: I’m curious what your script looks like on the page, given Residue is so much about sensory elements, both visual and aural, and also because there’s an element of documentary in how you shot it. How much of the final film was written in the script, and how much was found on set or in the edit?
Merawi Gerima: We shot over two summers, in 2017 and again in 2018. In between, I was trying to submit to the Sundance [Screenwriters Lab], so I went back and changed the script to what we shot. That says a lot: what we shot was so different from the original script, which was just a collection of memories loosely tied together. Only in the shooting of it did we start to bring in a lot more narrative logic.
[During the shoot,] we weren’t locked down by a budget or a perfected script. It was very loose, 100% outside of what they teach at film school. Any investor or producer would be hard pressed to believe in such a script.
7R: What led you to shooting over two summers with such a big break in between?
Merawi Gerima: We thought we had it the first summer. We shot a lot over 14 days, almost killed ourselves trying to get this thing done. I went back to school to finish my second year. We shot the first draft of the script, but it was so incomplete. It became clear very quickly that there was no ending, and many other things were missing.
For example, the scene where we see Mike (Derron Scott) in his last moments, that wasn’t there. It’s something we shot the second summer. I didn’t shoot it originally, because I try not to get too bogged down in graphic details about how people died and things like that. But it felt important [to show so the viewer could] make sense of his mother’s reactions. Things like that. It was basically a pickup shoot.