Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 07, 2020 1:23 pm 
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Location: California/NYC

A young black filmmaker returns to his childhood DC neighborhood and confronts its changes and his alienation

Residue is an original and impressive first film. It's an autobiographical exploration of the past through the eyes of Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), the filmmaker's alter ego. He's a young man who's studied film in "Cali" where he went to college, who returns to his old northeast Washington DC Q Street nabe looking for his childhood best friend, Demetrius, and for material for a movie. It would be like this one. It would express shock and alienation. He's been away for years. His parents still live there and don't plan to sell. But the place is full of unfriendly white people, realty firms are gobbling up properties, and gentrification is ugly.

Gerima infuses this involving, thought-provoking film with images of a ghetto childhood. As experimental as is his use of diegetic sound and chance grabs with a light-footed camera, what impresses the most is the extraordinary "use" - the word seems crude, though - of non-actor locals who take us into the thought processes of urban poor African Americans and just how they talk, how much they must absorb, how suspicious they are. The experimental is leavened and enriched by the ultra-real, and the intense emotions, mostly anger and alienation, are crystalized without ever seeming pre-digested. Gerima happens to come from distinguished filmmaking parents ( Ethiopian father Haile made Sankofa and Ashes and Embers). That can't hurt, but doesn't necessarily make it all that easy. The surprise is that he can so seamlessly fuse diaristic reports from the front into art. As Odie Henderson says in a very personal review, this shows "Thomas Wolfe was right"; you can't go home again. But if you have Merawi Gerima's unique skills, you can make this movie.

Plot isn't as important as dialogue here, the action meanders, not all time-schemes are clear (how long has Jay been gone, exactly?), but this doesn't detract from the vividness of so many scenes. Right at the start, who can forget the new white resident's words when Jay gets out of the white pickup truck he's just driven in from the West Coast in, in front of his parents' house. "The music is too loud...Turn the music down. You're also double parked. Don't make me have to call the cops." Welcome home.

There is also the encounter with white neighbors who let their dog defecate on his parent's lawn. The encounter leads him to a furious rage. But all this is enraging, and confusing. The drive east is subtly conveyed with images of tunnels, lights, summer Black Lives Matter demos, and the voice-over of Jay's father questioning his even coming back - "You said you hated this place...You thought a film could save us? Or did you see yourself as an archaeologist, coming to unearth our bones from the concrete?"

Not much unearthing of bones is going to happen. When he asks three old timers about Demetrius they're vague about what has become of him. Gerima lets the camera linger after this exchange, when Jay has moved on, to show us the men still talking. They're suspicious of Jay, don't trust him. Everyone is. Why's he so eager to find Demetrius? He could be undercover. This intimacy of the language makes you expect an intimacy of connection that's not happening. And yet Jay's early life, it's all here.

Jay has fraught encounters with others, and with visions of his past. His parents playfully spar over old slides they flash on the wall in the house, as to who was the best photographer. We also see the young Demetrius (Julian Selman). Was he one of those sweet boys who went through puberty and turned out mean and bad? Or did he do everything right and escape, with money and a family, as some say? A major character is Delonte (Dennis Lindsey), source of guilt for Jay and a need for amends. He was a protector for Jay, then in jail, where he wrote many letters Jay never answered. They meet in a peaceful conversation in a forest - that really is a prison visiting room, another sign Jay is haunted by memories and emotions. There's also Mike (Derron "Rizo" Scott). Mike is one of those young black men in a circle, in and out, back and forth between dreams of makin' it and confinement, what happens to so many.

Jay plunges into this world, the older women (some present, some remembered in visions). He speaks the echt ghetto speak; they all do: not a word of "educated" English is spoken. And no white faces seen. This is a course in black studies. Residuie is a brilliant and stylish first film, one of the year's best. Merawi Gerima is an impressive new talent.

Residue, 90 mins., debuted at Slamdance Jan. 2020,k winning the audience award there. It then was at Venice in Giornati degli autori, Mammoth, and Quebec City in Sept. 2020, and, distributed by Ava DuVernay's Array, was acquired by Netflix, where it may be seen now. Metascore 82%.


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