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.
7R: I read an interview where you said that “the process of filming Residue was a process of documentary.” How did you approach mixing documentary and fiction elements?
Merawi Gerima: We didn’t set out in such a clear way to say this film would be like a documentary, but we had certain things that we wanted to make sure we captured. For example, on the first day of shooting in my neighbourhood, I told my cinematographer, Mark, “If we’re rolling, and you see a white person, film them.” That led to this increasing list of rules we started holding ourselves to forf what we wanted to document of what was happening around us in that moment. That allowed us to not be bogged down in shooting exactly what was written [in the script]. We wanted to make sure the script was reacting to our reality, the same way we want our actors to react to it.
There would be times when Obinna Nwachukwu, who plays Jay, would be in a scene, and I would audibly, off camera, be like, “Keep that dude who’s delivering pizzas to that house, and just fold it in.” So I’d get him [Nwachukwu] and Mark in on [treating the real person as part of the scene].
That’s how we got [one of the first scenes in the film, in which Jay arrives back on Q Street and a white neighbour tells him to turn down his car radio]. If you look closely, when you see the guy say, “Turn down the music,” that’s our actor. Then, he leaves, and the camera goes to Jay, [when you hear offscreen] the guy say, “Have a nice day.”
That’s actually a real person, a delivery guy, who happened to be there [whose voice we captured]. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with that. It worked in the edit. We didn’t know we would use these things but they worked.
7R: What were the other rules you and your cinematographer, Mark Jeevaratnam, set for yourself for what to capture?
Merawi Gerima: Any types of construction, anything being demolished. A lot of the B-roll is stuff like bricks falling or guys hammering on the building that he [Jay] and his girlfriend go to. That was really just Mark getting those shots without me telling him to, because we had agreed on these things. There’s many that didn’t make it into the film, but for example, when Jay tries again to find out where Demetrius is, and the two guys don’t tell him, in the distance you can see a crane on a house. That was actually happening.
The hole in the ground in that massive construction site, we found that accidentally. Me and my sister were driving on Q Street. We went back to what used to be the alleyway, and there was this massive hole in the ground, and I was like, there’s no way we’re not filming that. Me and Mark sat down to design these shots around it.
7R: Was it a challenge to create your lead character, Jay, when he’s so close to you personally? And did the character change much when you cast Obinna Nwachukwu?
Merawi Gerima: It was a challenge. It’s difficult to breathe independent life into a character, to make him walk and talk differently from yourself. I don’t think I accomplished it. Trying to separate him from myself caused so much trouble, so when I allowed him to just be me, that’s when things started to click into place. It’s so contrary to the instinct of the artist which is to hide yourself and not show that it’s about you. Once Obi took it over, that actually became easy. It became easier to see him as separate and allow him to do things I wouldn’t do or say things I wouldn’t say. It became a really interesting blend.
7R: What kind of conversations did you have with your cinematographer in pre-production about what the aesthetic of Residue would be?
Merawi Gerima: It’s important to say that Mark came on maybe two or three days before we started filming. We didn’t have the pre-production time you’d hope. I didn’t know him before he came to D.C. that summer. My family has a bookstore in D.C., and one of the cinematographers he looks up to was a student of my dad’s at Howard University, Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma, Pariah).
Bradford Young is always talking about my dad, [Haile Gerima,] so Mark, listening to Brad, was like “Well shit, I heard he has a cafe in D.C., maybe I’ll go get some coffee there.” He ran into my dad, and my dad welcomed him in, because he’s like that. [My dad] also mentioned, “My son is about to shoot a film,” and he introduced us.
At the time, I had another cinematographer lined up and so Mark was just helping out where he could. But at a certain point, Mark stepped into the role, and with three days to go, we flew him from Atlanta back to D.C. to shoot the film. We had one night of scouting.
We were going to shoot on this Nikon D500, a DSLR [a type of camera that is more typically used for still photography than film], that I had. But he was like, “I think I can get us an Arri Alexa [an industry standard digital film camera] if I call in a favour.” It wasn’t an easy decision because I thought it would bring more drama than it was worth, and it was important to me to break some rules and shoot on this DSLR. But he said he could make it happen and that the production value was worth it. So he drove to New Jersey on our second night, and the next morning, drove it [the Alexa] back for filming.
We had very little time. I gave him my references: photos, songs. The prep was very brief. If you track what shots happened at what stage of production, you’d see them getting better and better, to the point when, the second summer, we were synced up.
7R: What references did you give him?
Merawi Gerima: I had a lot of archival photos from Washington D.C. in the ‘90s, a bit of ‘80s. Photos of families, picnics, a lot of kids, fire hydrants, people on the street. A lot of Black kids. There were other things sprinkled in, a lot of police, photos you don’t like to see. Things that harken back to this era of the war on drugs, brothers being lined up on the street. I’ve witnessed it myself, images of five, six, seven brothers all lined up on the street. We were trying to [replicate that] with one of the shots in a dream sequence.
7R: So you took more inspiration from real life images than from film?
Merawi Gerima: We didn’t have time to really talk about film references, although I think it’s something that would have helped us out a lot, too. He [Mark] wasn’t that familiar with my parents’ films which I draw from heavily. After we filmed, he started watching those films and said, “I had no idea the kind of vocabulary you were working from.” And you could tell: sometimes, I’d tell him to do something, and he’d do it, but it wouldn’t necessarily make too much sense to him.
7R: You have a really interesting way of shooting flashbacks in the film, with this swirling circular pattern on the lens. How did you think about visually representing memory in the film?
Merawi Gerima: The film is really like his [Jay’s] journey of trying to access his memories. At the beginning, they’re hard to access, [so shots in the flashback scenes are altered with] this kind of circular blur. Mostly, it’s in the centre, but sometimes, it’s focused on different parts of the frame, bits he can remember. [As the film progresses,] everything becomes more and more clear until everything floods back. It was the same with me: trying to remember certain memories, you can get the gist of it, but sometimes, you can’t even remember what your best friends looked like.
7R: How did you create that visual effect?
Merawi Gerima: I edited the whole film in Davinci Resolve, and they have really cool blurs. I was experimenting with those. That was the main tool I had.
The really cool thing is [the blur effect] reacts differently to 8mm footage than it does to digital footage. It creates this amazing swirl, like that one shot of the kid shooting a firecracker, the effect is just a blur, but the movement of the 8mm grain [working with the blur effect] creates this amazing image.
You get the same thing, too, when you push in heavily on digital footage. It’s harder to do on the Alexa footage [because it’s such a high resolution], but on cell phone footage or DSLR footage, if you zoom in on a small section of a larger shot, the digital grain itself starts to do something similar, especially if the shot itself is moving a lot. It’s an interesting effect when all these movements and adjustments combine.
7R: The sound is so crucial in the film to create the sound of memories. How did you approach that?
Merawi Gerima: They do these studies on, for example, bullfrogs, which are going extinct, where they’ll play a recording from the rainforest from 20 years ago, and they’ll play one now, and [the sound has changed because of the absence of bullfrogs]. That’s the idea I had, that we could take a recording of Q Street from the ‘90s and from now, and in those two recordings, you can show everything this film is trying to say.
Originally, in the script, I wanted to open the film with that kind of soundscape and no image. I never started the film that way because it evolved beyond that, but the film itself kind of does that by bringing in the sounds of the city that he [Jay] remembers. So [there’s a scene where] he has a visitor to his apartment, and when the door opens, he hears how it [Q Street] used to sound.
The film is kind of an archive of the community that I want to exist as an actual archive. I want to put as much of my community in the movie as possible.
7R: Since the soundscape has changed so much over time, was it a challenge to recreate the soundscape of your childhood, when it doesn’t exist anymore?
Merawi Gerima: Yeah. I think that we got lucky with certain sounds. Interestingly enough, D.C. kind of repopulates with Black people on the 4th of July. People come from all over back to the neighbourhoods to visit families and houses that are still there, so the population of Black people kind of swells. We were filming across a few 4th of Julys, so we had the opportunity to get these sounds at those times — the kids playing, all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of a cheat.
The other part was easy. It’s easy to capture the presence of gentrifiers in the city today: construction, people talking, conversations at a brunch table. Those are real conversations. One of the actors came in to audition, and she was talking and just saying these things. The lack of awareness is incredible to me, but at the same time, I’m going to make sure that it makes its way into the film.
7R: Could you talk about Residue being distributed by Ava DuVernay’s company, ARRAY Now, and how that’s affected the trajectory of the film?
Merawi Gerima: I work very hard to not think about what festivals we will go to or what type of distribution we would have [while I’m making the film itself]. I wanted to create as close to a sandbox environment that we could where we would be free to try whatever we wanted. That’s what we did. We worked as if we had nobody to answer to, because we didn’t.
Fortunately though, when it came time to distribute and go to festivals, thank God for Slamdance. They resist, in a similar way, where they don’t have as many people to answer to as larger festivals do, so they can choose more freely; they can be more responsive to the art. The fact that they world premiered our film before COVID hit was a blessing.
Thank God for ARRAY, because Black films never had this type of distribution framework in place before that’s ready to catch and lift up Black stories like this. Distributors, to this day, are still unable to see the commercial potential, if that matters to them, of Black stories. Ava [DuVernay] is ready to see the importance of these stories and also knows how to distribute them in a way that exploits their commercial potential. There’s no better place for this film to be in this moment.
It’s unfortunate because I think back to my parents, who never had someone like Ava to distribute their films. But we also see Ava as continuing the fight that they contributed so heavily to.