Between festival acclaim and a new Netflix feature, Merawi Gerima is having a hell of a year. Film Daze’s Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller spoke with the writer/director ahead of the release of Residue, which is an ode to a much-loved city and a rumination on change.
Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller: The portrayal of D.C. in Residue is moving, truthful, and relatable. How do you see the subject matter of gentrification, and how did you envision the changes in D.C. when crafting the film?
Merawi Gerima: When I left D.C. in 2015 to go to film school, I was like, fuck D.C.! I was tired of it — I’d never been to the west coast. By the time I graduated, I couldn’t wait to get back to D.C.; distance makes the heart grow fonder. In 2016, I went back for the first time. I had experienced gentrification before, but I had never seen that level of change in one go. I was on 9th Street, and couldn’t find 9th Street. It was hard to deal with that emotional disturbance. I began writing the script that summer. The more people who found out about what we were doing, the more people wanted to give. Sometimes we would yank people off the street, and say “hey, do you wanna be in a movie?” or “how old is your son? Is he interested in acting?”. One woman, I asked her to be in it, and she had all her children, and next thing you know they’re all in the movie. It was a community-bred effort.
NBB: Do you see the film as more of a message or an overview regarding these subjects?
MG: It was an emotional response, I was chasing things that rang true. I wanted to tell the story of my upbringing in this community, which I fear is being eradicated. I didn’t necessarily trust myself — having been away for so long and having been educated in a system that is destroying them — to come in and not do damage despite my best intentions. I recognized the way Hollywood creates perfect agents out of us, even the most well-meaning people. So I was checking myself at every turn. That contradiction exists within the final product: Delonté (Dennis Lindsey) is the type of person who, if I had the ability, I would project into every Black community around the world. We should have gatekeepers to challenge anybody who wants to come in and tell our story from the outside — especially people with cameras. It’s such a cash cow: poor Black people, who don’t have systems in place to reject marauding filmmakers. I wish that these communities could have people who say ‘I don’t trust you. We can tell our own stories.’
NBB: There are a lot of interesting turns of phrase in the film, like “decoys”, the “Motown shit”, and how “the world is a ghetto”.
MG: The idea of the world being a ghetto comes from my own childhood fear: my mom was trying to keep us out of the neighborhood when things got crazy, and my dad would say you can’t escape it. Both my parents are filmmakers, my father is Ethiopian, my mother is African-American, but that was his take. He painted this really depressing picture for me, as a kid, as if everything about Black existence would be chaos. To an extent, he’s right — Black people everywhere are subject to these conditions — but I could see that there are other ways to live, and people do get out and that there’s something to fight for. On decoys, that was really my parents’ fear, as they would see me going down this kind of dark path, they saw the potential me becoming a statistic. My mother’s way of enticing me out of that was reminding me of my larger goals. There are plenty of people who don’t know the type of damage that they cause. White folks in D.C. are just pursuing their own happiness and interests, not knowing that the pursuit of their interests are tied directly to the oppression of Black people. If you’re wasted by one of these lowly foot soldiers of this process, your time here would have been in vain.
NBB: How about the concept of residue?
MG: Residue is about what’s left behind. But more so, it’s about how Black people don’t leave behind much: Black people don’t leave behind Rolls-Royces, mansions, funds. They leave behind a watch, a table, a beat-up car. It’s hard to apply high-falutin’ terms like legacy to something like that. The idea here is, despite existing in a hostile place, the fact they do leave these things behind is a miracle. This ‘residue,’ which is a term applicable to the smearing that slugs leave behind, is also applicable to everyday people who existed against all odds.
NBB: Were your father’s (Haile Gerima) films, especially Bush Mama, a frame of reference for Residue?
MG: That’s the heart of it — I’m nothing if not a continuation of what my parents built and continue to build. It’s impossible to fully understand my work without also knowing my parents’ work. I’m a product of my parents and their style of filmmaking. As I was writing, I had the soundtrack of Bush Mama playing — it’s that deep. My father has been editing a film he’s worked on for the past twenty years, on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. I’m in Sankofa, our bookstore, in my corner editing my stuff and he’s in the room working on his. Through osmosis, the editing style is kindred.
Residue is available to watch now on Netflix.