Few films set in Washington, D.C. use the nation’s capital as more than an obvious backdrop for political intrigue. Even when it’s the setting of some Beltway drama or conspiracy thriller, very little of the real city is used for production. But showing D.C. as it truly is, as it truly feels, gives Merawi Gerima’s feature film debut, Residue, much of its power.

The film follows Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a young man returning to Q Street from time in Los Angeles with the intent to write a screenplay about his hometown. When he arrives, he’s alienated and haunted by the gentrification the neighborhood is dealing with. What was once Eckington, a predominantly black area, is now “NoMa,” with more white faces than ever, letters and voicemails littered with cash offers from white voices to buy black homes.

Jay struggles to recalibrate to his past life, running into old friends who greet him at a distance, confused by his surroundings as images of the current D.C. cut and blend into memories of his childhood, grainy footage that feels like old Polaroids come to life. Residue is at its best when it sticks to this dreamlike approach, leaving the core narrative in the background to service as a living collage of worlds colliding.

There are two truly poetic passages that stick out. One features the intercutting of a group of white girls at brunch, joking about how their building is really nice even if it’s across from a “crackhouse,” with footage of a gang of police assaulting a black man – his blood spilled on the street swapped back and forth for spilled red wine on their patio.

In a later scene, Jay’s parents fire up the old Carousel to project childhood photos onto a wall he is standing in front of, as if the memories are painted on his chest. They cycle through to a photo of Jay’s friend Mike’s mother, pregnant with him. The scene cuts to Mike’s dead body, moments before his mother and Jay find out he’s been taken from them.

The larger ideas about gentrification, street crime and lost friendship grow muddled through the film’s 90-minute runtime that somehow feels twice as long thanks to how uneven this meditative tone plays out. A Vanity Fair profile on Gerima highlights how he put a lot of pressure on himself to come out of USC with a completed feature film, given both of his parents, Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina, are celebrated filmmakers. He rushed to shoot the first draft of his screenplay over two separate summers in D.C., an ambitious decision that plagues the film and holds back its potential.

For every lyrical sequence that mixes nostalgia and trauma with ease, there are countless moments in the film that feel thrown together, underwritten and poorly produced. Whole scenes will feature Jay on screen alone while the other characters he speaks to off screen deliver their dialogue through voiceover, less a stylistic choice one imagines than a practical one given the film’s tumultuous schedule. The script feels like enough material for a really robust short film stretched to its limits in feature length until the sunlight pours holes through its too-thin surface.

Gerima shows great promise, but too many facets here, like the muddied sound editing and inconsistent performances, result in a feature debut that feels more like a student film. As enticing and impressive as Residue feels in its brightest moments, no amount of gesturing at harrowing footage of omnipresent construction sites and rude Karens can make up for an undercooked script.

Summary
For every lyrical sequence that mixes nostalgia and trauma with ease, there are countless moments that feel thrown together, underwritten and poorly produced.
52 %
Wasted Potential
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