An aspiring filmmaker returns home to Washington DC, intending to research a screenplay about the street where he lived – only to find that the past is gone, and for some there is no going back.
In a year where most cinemas have been closed, and film festivals have been variously restricted, cancelled, or forced online, it is easy for a quality film to pass under the radar. One hopes this does not happen here: Residue is the debut feature from writer/director Merawi Gerima, and marks the start of what looks to be – and deserves to me – a remarkable directorial career.
Gerima’s film circles around Jay (Obi Nwachukwu), a black man who grew up in Washington’s suburbs only to leave for university in California. He has returned to his old neighbourhood, planning to adapt his memories of childhood into a feature screenplay, only to find the once-familiar streets becoming increasingly gentrified and re-imagined by an influx of wealthy white couples. Some of his friends still live there. Others are incarcerated in prison. One childhood friend in particular is missing – but no one will tell Jay precisely where they have gone.
Residue is an exceptional drama. Gerima has developed a story that is modest in scope but packed with emotion and resonance. The performances are wonderfully natural and vividly presented in a realistic fashion. It is rich in nostalgia and a deep sense of melancholy – an entire black community is dying away, replaced by yet more affluent wide suburbia. Every house on the street is being gutted and remodelled one-by-one, replacing the world of Jay’s childhood with something new, unfamiliar, and deeply unwelcoming. Jay wishes to capture the past in a screenplay, but all around him are signs that the past is simply cursed to be erased. Obi Nwachukwu is a tremendous lead, as are the supporting cast – notably Dennis Lindsey as childhood friend Delonte and Taline Stewart as Jay’s girlfriend Blue.
While the performances are naturalistic, the presentation is strikingly non-realist. Memory and present space blend from scene to scene. People from the past converse with those of the present. In one beautiful sequence, Jay visits one of his childhood friends in prison (Jamal Graham). Their conversation takes place in a drab room with glass separating the two. On screen, they are wondering through a forest that they visited together as children. This visual representation of memory, tinged with both affection and regret, lifts would could be a straight drama into something vivid and lyrical. Mark Jeevaratnam’s cinematography is flooded with light and a beautiful texture, filtering the flashbacks with an old, faded look of washed-out browns and oranges. It is one of the most visually attractive films of the year to date.
This is an effective, distinctive, and highly mature work of cinema. For a film in its own right it is hugely impressive. As a directorial debut, it really is a marvel.
Residue is currently streaming in Australia on Netflix.