By Andrea Thompson
The film “Residue” is about as quiet as a silent scream. To watch it is to contemplate another cry of pain in plain sight, Edvard Munch’s famous, now iconic 1893 painting The Scream. You know the one. A strange, barely human figure on a bridge, clad in black, holds his hands up to his face while opening his mouth in a silent cry while the natural landscape seems to ache with him, while a couple walks behind him in the distance, seemingly calm and oblivious.
Like most works of art that have been embraced by the wider culture, we tend to see it without considering it. And why not? It’s gone on to inspire everything and everyone it seems, from other artists, whether it’s as homage, parody, or unconscious influence, to ads, and equally iconic slasher villains, even getting its own emoji. The ironic result is a failure on the part of even the most observant of us to truly contemplate it and the pain that it clearly conveys, which is as intense as a…well, you get the idea.
Likewise, Merawi Gerima, the son of legendary L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Haile Gerima, is screaming into the (gentrified) void in his autobiographical feature debut “Residue.” And he’s hardly alone, even though Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), his clear surrogate, almost seems about to choke on his loneliness at times. For Jay, who returns from California from whence he fled to a D.C. neighborhood that’s about as far from the halls of power as you can get, the question isn’t whether you can go home again as whether home will exist for much longer.
From the moment Jay arrives at his old stomping grounds with the intent to make a film about where he grew up, he is shocked to discover that he barely recognizes it, as it has been gentrified to such a degree that the steadily encroaching whiteness threatens to choke him the instant he arrives. In the space of a few minutes, he’s asked to turn his music down and not to double park, with the added threat of a call to the police thrown in. And to have a nice day of course.
It’s a pattern that will surely repeat and does, since Jay must continually restrain himself when white residents inflict various aggressions, whether it’s allowing their dog to relieve himself in his mother’s yard, then cursing at his mother, and crossing the street when they see him. Of course, aggression doesn’t belong solely to white people in this remarkable film, as Jay’s various friends can attest to, and all bear the scars of their own traumas, whether from drugs, jail, police harassment, or gun violence, or often, a harrowing mixture of the many forces that work themselves into the fabric of their lives. Some can’t even be found at all, as Jay discovers to his distress when he tries to learn the whereabouts of his childhood best friend Demetrius (Julian Selman), only to meet with evasion and distrust from a community that constantly reminds him of his departure.
Gentrification is less a topic than a force as capitalism has continued to loose its bonds and devour those low income enough to be caught in its path. Gerima’s approach to it is less “Blindspotting” than “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” with its quieter tone, although it takes a far more experimental approach to its subject matter. It can be jarring and confusing, as various flashbacks and shaky cam mingles with childhood memories both fond and violent, but most of the time it’s pure poetry, or at the very least, creativity as Jay becomes the camera, at one point literally, as he observes the people and place he no longer feels fully part of.
Yet for a film that’s so much about isolation, Gerima’s intimate approach is what shines brightest, whether through the use of local non-actors or his own knowledge and history. Gerima saves his most insidious condemnation of gentrification for the film’s final minutes, when the smiling ignorance of the area’s various white residents come to a head, as they casually discuss how the area has been “cleaned up,” and even more sinister, renamed.
As Antoinette, another unruly character who is punished for her inability to conform, noted in the novel “Wide Sargasso Sea,” names matter. Be it a person or a city, “Residue” is a kind of poetic depiction of what essentially constitutes a literal erasure of an identity to fit the desires of the affluent.