I tend to look askance at movie-making nepotism, but Merawi Gerima’s debut feature, “Residue,” has me rethinking that.
“Residue” is an immersive, impressionistic sketch of a Black DC expat coming home to a place he swore he’d put in his rear-view for good fifteen years before. It’s a memory play steeped in social upheaval, pointed, politically-aware and beautiful to behold.
And among the films it resembles is the model-visits-a-slave-trading fort drama, “Sankofa,” a memorably gorgeous and dark dreamscape, a landmark indie film by Ethiopian-American director Haile Gerima, whom I got to hang with at a film school he was visiting some years back.
So, “Chip off the old block?” Oh yes, and in the most flattering ways.
Jake (Obinna Nwachuwu) shows up on Q Street in his pickup, a mattress in the flatbed, ready to stick around for a while. He’s working on a script about the old hood — “Eckington,” which the callow yuppies moving in and “gentrifying” have re-dubbed “NoMa” (north of Massachusetts Ave.).
A narrator questions Jake, in his head — “Did you sense that our obliteration was just around the corner? You thought a FILM could save us?”
Jake reconnects with his parents (Melody A. Tally and Ramon Thompson). He hooks up with the beautiful Blue (Taline Stewart). And he starts mingling, chatting up the few people who might remember him, asking where his childhood bud Demetrius is.
Nobody wants to talk about that. Not Mike (Derron Scott), and especially not Devonte (Dennis Lindsey).
“Gentrification” is seen at its ugliest here, fake “eviction notice” threats slapped on doors, endless calls from predatory real estate flippers.
And the endless provocations presented “back home” are a genuine threat to Jake, who has flashbacks to the neighborhood violence he witnessed during his childhood, and whose anger management issues will be severely tested by hassling cops, obnoxious urban (white) homesteaders and young bloods out to prove how “hard” they are — when they’re with their gang.
The white folks among them, not picking up after their dogs, “are the decoys,” his mother warns. Don’t take the bait. Don’t give them the chance to call the cops on you.
“How many people do we know whose lives were wasted like that?”
It’s the same with his endless Demetrius search. Dion? “He’s still in.” This guy or that one is “under the concrete.”
Gerima uses a hand-held camera, tight shots and splashes of dialogue blended in with dimly-lit, sometimes grainy/sometimes blurry flashbacks to create this chiaroscuro.
But the most impressionistic scene is of Jake’s chat with one old friend. They’re in the woods, chuckling and remembering, enjoying nature, Jake apologizing for all the letters he never replied to. An off camera voice barks, “OK, that’s it.” It’s actually a prison visit, sobering and sad and institutional. And it’s just beautiful.
The bleak outlook of this story won’t be to every taste. But “Residue” brings a painful beauty to a real-life “whitewashing” of a city that will never let you look at gentrification from a realtor’s point of view ever again.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Obinna Nwachuwu, Melody A. Tally, Ramon Thompson, Taline Stewart, Dennis Lindsey, Derron Scott
Credits: Written and directed by Merawi Gerima. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30