From the very first opening shot, one knew immediately that RESIDUE* was going to be a brilliant, cinematic work of art. Graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts, first-time film director Merawi Gerima took his time in shooting the establishing shots — a series of slightly veiled, sometimes muffled sounds ranging from a protest evolving in slow motion and a police presence, to a street performer entertaining a crowd of spectators. Fulfilling the directorial vision, cinematographer Mark Jeevaratnam captured every nuanced moment in this 90-minute film, sometimes employing the shaky look associated with a handheld camera. The low lighting used in parts of the film was entrancing, creating shadows, which augmented the occasional disembodied, muffled voices. Those moments are skillfully supported by assistance from Alex J. Bledsoe on sound and Cam Poles, who co-supervised the music. These kinetic cinematic elements could perhaps be symbolic of the lead character of Jay’s ongoing disappointing discoveries. At first, the connective tissue was not immediately clear, but became so as we move further and further into the film.
The story line revolves around a young filmmaker named Jay, brilliantly portrayed by Obinna Nwachukwu, who, after many years in Los Angeles, returns to his old neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to gather up research for a film he plans to make about growing up on Q Street. His first order of business in returning is to visit his parents who still live in the same home in which he grew up. They are not happy with what’s happening to their neighborhood, which is becoming gentrified, with long-time African-American residents selling their properties to white developers. Despite receiving lucrative offers, they stand tight and refuse to sell. Jay is greeted warmly by his parents and says, “It’s good to be home.” In a symbolically telling moment, a white couple allows their dog to poop on his parents’ front lawn. Jay’s mother scolds them and they reply, “We’ll clean it up” but mom says, “But it always leaves a residue.” Jay’s overriding desire is to reconnect with Demetrius, his best childhood friend. He asks a number of people who knew him from the past, but no one seems to know what became of him. Director Gerima’s script seamlessly moves back and forth in time delicately blending the protagonist’s present experience as compared to his past.
Jay continues to meet with residents of “Q Street” meticulously taking notes that he will turn into a screenplay. In one of the tender flashback scenes, Jay is in the woods with his friend Demetrius and they talk about how relaxing it is to hear the birds chirp and savor the sweet smell of the woods. The two young boys playfully wrestle and the bond between them is quite evident. It also becomes quite evident that Jay’s childhood memories of what it was like growing up in his neighborhood do not connect to what he is seeing today. In addition to the gentrification, he is basically unable to reconnect with his childhood friends who seem to be scattered in different directions. This is a heartfelt story of someone who finds that the childhood he knew has virtually disappeared and the emptiness that his discoveries engender.
Director Gerima has meticulously assembled a sterling cast starting with Obinna Nwachukwu in the lead role. He gives an Oscar-worthy performance mining through the myriad emotions the character experiences as he discovers the changes to his childhood neighborhood. His understated, but searing performance, is reminiscent of the characterizations delivered by such Hollywood giants as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman or Robert DeNiro. Other cast members include, JaCari Dye, Jamal Graham, Dennis Lindsey, Derron Scott, Julian Selman, Taline Stewart, Melody A. Tally, and Ramon Thompson — all of whom deliver pitch perfect performances — so perfect and so fully actuated that it almost feels as though they are improvising — a tribute to great direction.
It took a small village to create RESIDUE, starting with the superb writer/director/editor, a gifted production team, and a talented cast. This outstanding cinematic journey is now streaming on Netflix.
*RESIDUE made it’s world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival, receiving the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Acting Award for star Obinna Nwachukwu. The film is also an official selection of the 77th Venice International Film Festival’s Giornate degli Autori. Gerima is the son of Haile Gerima, a famous Ethiopian filmmaker noted for the L.S. Rebellion film movement.