Some threats to Black communities are obvious: overarmed, racist police officers with itchy trigger fingers, rocks through windows, burning crosses. But gentrification is far more insidious, and what was once regarded by some (mostly white) quarters as a sign of positive change in a neighborhood is now exposed as something more akin to an invasion. Residue, directed by Merawi Gerima, presents gentrification as nothing less than an act of open hostility. In a lot of ways, it feels like a perfect companion piece to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. But where the former is a melancholy, elegant glimpse at two men who helplessly watch their city change around them, Residue is the raw, angry ode to those who are left, only to return to a home that no longer exists.
Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) grew up in the old DC, in the sort of vibrant, working-class community that has been gradually replaced by rehabbed condos and brunch spots. But when he moves back home after several years in California, he barely recognizes the neighborhood. The first person he interacts with is a white man, the kind of entitled gentrifier who thinks that because he owns property, he owns the entire neighborhood. Someone who tells him his music is too loud and he’s double-parked, threatens to call the cops on him, and bids him a good day. It would seem heavy-handed, but let’s be honest, we’ve all seen the cell phone footage of white people acting far worse over far less egregious perceived slights. Jay’s mother gets dozens of phone calls and flyers shoved under her front door from predatory real estate developers promising cash offers to sell their house quickly, blood money in exchange for tearing a community down brick by brick.
He’s returned home to make a movie about Q Street, to give a “voice for the voiceless.” But things have changed, and his childhood friends, in addition to not being thrilled at the idea of being considered voiceless, aren’t over eager to accept him back into the fold. His leaving home is regarded as abandonment, the decision to turn his back on his community, the ultimate betrayal. He obsessively searches for his childhood best friend Demetrius, seemingly in an effort to connect with the past, but no one is willing to talk about him. Home is out there, somewhere, but it’s no easy task to find your way back. The present is juxtaposed with images from Jay’s childhood, hazy and blurred at first, then clearer and more defined as time goes on, until it’s almost overwhelming. If the past is initially difficult to access, it’s impossible to escape once it’s been set loose.
Residue almost never pulls its punches. It’s angry, and sad, and full of regrets. But most of all, it’s exhausted. Nwachukwu grounds the film as Jay — the one with potential, the one who got out, the one who had all the luck. But he’s still weighed down by trauma, even if it only asserts itself occasionally. It’s a quiet performance, which makes his rare explosive moments all the more powerful.
More than anything, Residue is about a stubborn refusal to be erased. The gentrifiers who have transformed many American cities want to pretend that there was nothing of value in the neighborhoods they take over, just empty houses, boarded up businesses, and dangerous people. They rebrand the names of city districts, not satisfied with claiming a community’s physical space, but wanting to remove its very identity. This is about not being forgotten. Making a mark feels like what Jay is trying to do with his film. He wants to shine a light on the unseen figures in his life, but there’s also an undeniable element of self-interest to his actions. It’s inextricably linked to achievement, proving yourself worthy of existing in a space. Whereas leaving a residue is an act of defiance. It says, “you can scrub as hard as you want, but you will not erase the memory of us.”
Residue is the latest film from Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY. Other films from ARRAY currently available on Netflix include Burning Cane, The Burial of Kojo, Vaya, Jezebel, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and Lingua Franca.