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‘Residue’ review: Dir. Merawi Gerima (2020) [Sundance]

A key moment in Residue, Merawi Gerima’s debut feature, sees a white couple allow their dog to defecate on somebody else’s front lawn. When confronted by the African-American owner, the couple state how they were going to clean it up straight after, but the owner responds with “It still leaves a residue.” This is Gerima’s central theme he explores in a tale of identity and frustration that echoes with subtlety and purposeful obviousness.

Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) returns to the neighbourhood he grew up in, stating he, perhaps channelling Gerima himself, wishes to make a film about the area. However, Jay is also looking for his childhood friend Demetrius, but can’t seem to find any leads on him. As Jay communicates with those around him, he gradually notices the gentrification around him, and his frustration and anger escalate at both the white community who are changing the place he once knew and the black community that seem okay with it.

Nwachukwu carries the film, with an excellent turn of bubbling annoyance that overspills into anger. Jay is a conflicted character that blurs lines between concerned advocate and hypocritical meddler. He sees how the community has evolved, yet he himself left and didn’t see the evolution. He now sees himself as the voice of reason and can’t understand why the black community would sell their homes. As the neighbourhood has become wealthier (read ‘whiter’), poverty, and therefore crime, have decreased. It’s a difficult and brave issue that Gerima examines well, rather than trying to force solutions and answers.

It works because Gerima keeps Jay centre stage, and allows us to see through his eyes, without placing blame. Gerima purposefully keeps the white community at arm’s length, shooting them from behind, the waist up, or heavily silhouetted. We still hear their voices, and they aren’t the voices of hate, but of ignorance. They refer to the neighbourhood as having been “cleaned up”, without any consideration as to why it was the way it was before. They are the voices of privilege, and are unaware that their requests and comments are often microaggressions; Jay’s first interaction with a white person sees them asking him to turn down the music in his van in the middle of the day, as he moves in.

Residue may not always be the cleanest nor most attractive of films, but this adds to the very real vibe that Gerima accomplishes. There are times when too many visual techniques are employed to express flashbacks and nightmares, but Gerima also handles visual storytelling very well with extended periods of no dialogue. Residue is more important than it feels, and may sadly, like the gentrification in the film, be almost too easy to ignore. Unlike Jay himself, the film doesn’t get angry at the situation, but this also makes it a gentler, slow burner, that opens up discussion and opinions without forceful attacks.

Residue was reviewed at Sundance 2020.

Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.


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