Following in the footsteps of his parents, director Merawi Gerima tells an unmistakably Black story with his debut film Residue. This artful drama turns the camera towards gentrification in Gerima’s native Washington DC, as he explores the emotional journey of an aspiring filmmaker as he tries to reconnect with his changing community. On the heels of the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival and subsequent Netflix release, I spoke with Gerima to discuss the personal meaning and motivations behind its story. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: We’ve been seeing more films address the issue of gentrification and they are often set in NYC or the San Francisco Bay Area. What was the significance of setting this story in Washington, D.C.?
Merawi Gerima: Well, DC is the place I know best. I would be somewhat of an imposter trying to tell a story about New York or Oakland, even though I relate to them very closely. I just think I have so much to say about DC specifically. It’s so consequential to my identity.
SS: Were the characters based on people you know?
MG: Yeah, from top to bottom. The main character is definitely based on me. The people come out of my own experience, the folks I grew up with. Also, just the mythology of the neighborhood. The stories that were swirling around.
SS: There’s a scene where a cop interrupts a conversation but we only see the blue light. Was there any deeper meaning behind not showing his face and instead using real life Black Lives Matter-related footage for that imagery?
MG: It was written that way early on because I knew I had no time to fund raise, no prospects for money. I just knew that it would be a low budget film. I knew we wouldn’t have money for a cop car and uniform. Especially in LA, just seeing how much those things can cost. I just felt it would be cheaper to shoot it that way. A lot of these creative decisions and stylistic choices really come out of our economic conditions. I think in many ways, it forced us to be more creative and find solutions that adhered closer to the emotional story I was trying to tell anyway. I can’t remember any cop’s face to be honest. In my interactions with them I just know the emotions of being under the magnifying glass like that.
SS: The performances felt very naturalistic, almost as if they were improvised. What was your approach to the dialogue and working with the cast?
MG: The dialogue was crucial for me. We were making this film in such a way that authenticity was one of the primary motivating forces. So in the writing, I wanted it to be as DC as possible. I think DC’s accent is so specific, so unique. To me, it’s very musical in ways. The ways people just kind of flip the language and use it for their own needs. It so quickly changes. If you’re gone for a couple months, you’re behind. So being away for a while, I did what I could and then I trusted the actors. I cast actors that were DC through and through. And I trusted them to bring in the rest.
SS: The lead character is very intriguing. In some scenes he’s trying to be a tough guy, while in others he’s much more vulnerable. What were you trying to bring across to the audience through his journey?
MG: I was trying to deal with my own sense of powerlessness being in the city. Certainly under the conditions of gentrification and DC being taken away from me. But also, growing up in a city like that, you also experience a certain pecking order or food chain. Black men exist at the bottom of the food chain in so many ways. You grow up knowing to keep your head down. For me, I had this complicated relationship with the city. I love it and I’m so proud to be from it, but at the same time when I’m there it’s like my antennae are up at all times.
The relationship with Blue comes out of immaturities that I was working through at the time. In many ways, those immaturities are encapsulated in the film. It’s reflective of who I was at the moment. That’s a beautiful aspect of making a film about yourself. You can see yourself more clearly.
Finally, the visitation scene was written with no audience in mind. That was really written in a way for me to work out the things I thought I might say when I finally saw my folks. It doesn’t get any more vulnerable than that.
SS: There’s a voice-over line in the beginning that basically questions the power of films to impact social issues. How do you see the role of films and your role as a filmmaker? Does filmmaking have that power to impact society?
MG: It’s dubious for sure. I think that in many ways black filmmakers overestimate the power of cinema. We’re armed with these platitudes about how film is the most powerful force in the world. But if you go to black communities in America and look to their immediate needs, films can do very little. I think that you’ll very quickly find yourself powerless. Especially compared to the power that teachers, doctors, nurses, mentors and others hold. Anything else other than film suddenly seems so incredible in the ways that it can affect people’s lives.
But at the same time, I was watching a video of my father Haile Gerima yesterday, talking about how film has destroyed whole swaths of the planet. Has cut them down, destroyed their history. Native Americans, Latin Americans and others through the 100-year history of Hollywood. It punctuates the saying that film is the new hydrogen bomb. So that power of film is undeniable at the same time. It’s a cultural war and culture is not immediate or material in that way. We just need to recalibrate our idea of exactly what film can do. Which is what Delonte does for Jay.
SS: Was there anything you took or learned from your father while creating this debut film?
MG: Yes, absolutely. He doesn’t have a million dollars to invest in my project, but he has a truly mindblowing wealth of information and experience which he gives freely. If I had any advantage, it’s coming out of just being part of my family. My parents are Black independent filmmakers forged in the fires of the most incredibly racist film industry on the planet. Especially in the 60s, 70s and 80s they were really fighting tooth and nail to tell Black stories without any strings attached. I think it explains why I felt this film was so possible and wasn’t bothered by the fact that we didn’t have much money. They set an incredible example.
During pre-production, me, my cinematographer and my assistant director were all staying at my parents’ house. And the night before we began filming, my father took us to the side and began pointing out all the ways that our pre-production was looking bad. But he also said, it’s important to know that we don’t have much resources and the urgency of the production will find its way into the final product. So just accept the imperfections and find a way to fold them in. And that became kind of our battle cry.
Residue is now playing in select theaters and on Netflix.