- Merawi Gerima
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
...a riot is the language of the unheard.
Merawi Gerima’s debut film Residue reflects the mood of the author of Psalm 137. Its protagonist Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) has returned to the Q Street neighborhood in Washington DC where he grew up. He has been a self-exile in Los Angeles where he has attended college, studying film making and apparently was able to set up a project to make a film about his former digs. His return is a scouting expedition to find old homies from whom he can extract details for inclusion in the script he plans to write. However, he finds that the area is rapidly becoming as occupied by aliens as was ancient Jerusalem—for that is what the white-skinned occupants of the newly bought houses are to the natives. The Babylonians conquered by the sword; Whites use money instead, buying properties unaffordable to the renters and up scaling them to White standards.
Jay finds he is an untrusted stranger on his former turf, the Black street idlers not recognizing him and not giving him any information when he asks about former friends. When he pulls up to his parents’ house and gets out, a White man demands that he turn down the loud music from his car radio, even suggesting that he might have to call the police. Another White, at first viewing him as a possible intruder, welcomes him to the neighborhood, not realizing Jay had grown up in the house where he is now rooming.
His mother and stepfather had been prosperous enough to buy another house off Q Street. Their neighborhood too is under assault by realtors wanting to buy the houses and resell them at a big profit to Whites eager to live in the city. Realtors approach them with offers, and when turned down, insist on leaving cards and flyers.
In one scene from which the film’s title comes Jay is with his mother Lavonne (Melody A. Tally) she exchanges some harsh words with a White woman whose dog has relieved itself in her yard. “I’m going to clean it up,” the White woman says. “It’ll still leave a residue,” Lavonne replies. The White woman and her boyfriend walk off complaining loudly. The man yells back an obscenity which so angers Jay that he is about to run after the offender. Fortunately, Lavonne restrains him. This will be one of several times she wisely holds her short-tempered son back—and the film will end when Jay is alone, with no one to hold back his pent-up rage.
Jay is able to find and talk with one of his homies, Delonte (Dennis Lindsey). He informs Jay that many of their old playmates are locked up in jail. Mike is dead, he reveals, but he himself has survived, very much hardened by his experience. He’s full of cynicism and suspicion concerning Jay. The latter is especially eager to link up again with Demetrius, once his best friend, but he has mysteriously vanished, possibly to New Jersey. Delonte is upset that Jay had abandoned everyone by fleeing to California. When Jay tries to explain that he wants to make a film to give a voice to the voiceless, Delonte, seeing through his seeming altruism, retorts, “Who’s voiceless?” Delonte is not buying the argument that a film will benefit the neighborhood, even suggesting that now Jay is exploiting the neighborhood. No doubt Jay’s long repressed guilt is deepened by Delonte’s accusation, “Don’t forget, you left us! You can’t save me now. You lived the big life in LA, whilst we held down the city. Don’t ask ‘where is Demetrius, as if you really care. You only care only about yourself and the motherf…g movie you are shooting. Anyhow, we are paved over by the Whites, like we never existed.”
Jay’s relationship with his old girlfriend Blue is just as fragile. It is only his relationship with the older Dion (Jamal Graham), who had been a mentor, that is deepened. To his shame, Jay had never replied to the many letters that Dion had written him. In the most moving scene of the film Jay visits his friend in prison. To show the warmth of their relationship, the scene is shot, not amidst the grey walls of the prison, but in a sun-lit forest, much like the one in which the two had romped as boys during a rare escape from the city. Dion is truly a man of grace, shunting aside the guilt-ridden Jay’s apology as they talk. This is a man very much concerned still for his young protégé. Unlike Delonte, he has not given up on the young man who had abandoned him.
Interspersed throughout the film are flashbacks of Jay and his young friends. Often parts of a scene are blurred, and the hand-held camera jiggles a shot, making viewers uneasy and unsure. Initial displeasure gives way to admiration as one realizes this is intentional. The past intertwines with the present, as in the early scene when Jay drives up to his old home on Q Street and sees, across the street, a younger version of himself (JaCari Dye) staring at him from behind a parked car. Also, it is notable that we hardly ever are shown the faces of the whites. They belong to those who are intrusive, but never a part of the lives of the Blacks.
This film, like the one that unfolded across the continent, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, should make us White viewers stop and think about the process that usually is discussed as a positive matter, gentrification. My mind was taken back to the late 60s and 70s when for several summers I led groups on work camps and religion & the arts treks to New York City. Encased in our sleeping bags, we bunked in Manhattan churches where, each year saw gentrification transform nearby streets. Back then people (Whites, of course) spoke in glowing terms of how the restored houses and new (White) occupants meant that needles and trash no longer littered the streets. Gentrification was a Good Thing! What was not discussed was what happened to the former (Black and Latinos) who had been forced to move.
The film’s ambiguous ending leaves us up in the air—but hopefully long enough to reach a better understanding of the racism permeating our society. Just as the Psalmist could not “sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land,” so Jay is finding it impossible to make his film. His friends are dead or in prison, due to their involvement somehow with drugs. At a White block party a White participant boldly buys a sack of drugs to share, with no fear of being busted by the (White) cops. No wonder Jay leaves the party and erupts in a rage that night! We can argue that it is as self-destructive as that which, prodded by still another murder of a Black male by White cops, results in blacks burning down their own neighborhoods, but…
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood Jay. In his famous interview with Mike Wallace in 1966 he said, “And I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro,” King said…I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Like the passionate prophet with a camera that he is, Merawi Gerima has given us a visual parable, a plea—no, actually a warning of what is to come if Whites continue to try to ignore systemic racism. He is, of course, Jay, but with far deeper awareness of himself and of the sickness of our nation.
Available on Netflix and through https://www.arraynow.com/residue.
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