Director Merawi Gerima on ‘Residue’ as a Weapon in Battle for Black People’s Rights

Merawi Gerima grew up in northeast Washington D.C., an area that plays prominently in his first feature “Residue,” about a film student named Jay who returns home after a stint at USC film school to find his neighborhood gentrified and his family and friends contending with racist hostility from new white neighbors. Just like Jay, Gerima went to USC. He wrote and directed “Residue” to give a voice to his eviscerated neighborhood’s survivors, including himself.

After making a splash at Slamdance, “Residue” just launched internationally at the Venice Film Festival in the independent Venice Days section, where it scored a special mention. The film, which has been acquired for the U.S. by Ava DuVernay’s film company, Array, will drop on Netflix on Sept. 17 in the U.S. and also play in select Stateside theaters.

In Venice, Gerima spoke to Variety about his close personal connection to the film and also his hope that it can become instrumental in the battle that “Black people face all over the world.” Excerpts from the conversation.

Talk to me about your personal connection to the film.

I went to film school in 2015. A year later I came back. And that was the longest stretch I had been away from Washington. I think just the extent and intensity to which everything had changed was kind of disturbing for me in many ways. So that summer I started writing the script that became “Residue.”

At that point is was just, like, an angry resentful and essentially petty kind of story about gentrification. But at a certain point it merged with this other idea about this guy looking for his friend.

I’m only able to tell you this now, in retrospect, because I was recently going through my journal. And in 2011 I had an entry about when I had just found out some bad news about one of the guys I grew up with. This story had been floating around in my mind and when the two (stories) combined, everything started making sense.

The film is about gentrification, but gentrification is just a symptom of something deeper. Do you agree?

Growing up you have no sense of who is in office. You have no sense of any wars that are happening around the world. You have no sense of the economy, any of that. Really all you know is that so and so got locked up. Or so and so got shot, or killed. Or so and so just ran through your house running from the police, and your mother is hiding them or suturing some wounds.

To a certain extent these memories and experiences certainly seared themselves into my mind in a way that any time I speak or express, or seek to express, myself, these experiences formed everything I do. And it’s only now as an adult, at 32 years old, that I can apply what I know to a broader vision of the conditions that were in existence in the world and guided my life experiences.

All I could do as I was writing it was capture those very specific moments.

“Residue” is just about this neighborhood which I grew up in, which I remember fondly. Trying to make sense of the distance between where I have ended up, and where they are. Because it’s vast. It’s not about gentrification in a specific sense. It’s about a very specific perspective on this thing. On this all-encompassing battle that Black people face all over the world.

After your film launched from Slamdance, George Floyd was brutally killed and the movement for Black people’s rights gained momentum. How do you feel about the timing of its release in the U.S.?

In one sense it’s late because I would have liked for “Residue” to be something that kicked off, or helped to kick off – at least in D.C. – whatever explosion occurred. Because for me it’s important that Black people in D.C. know that it’s okay to be angry at what’s going on. To not suppress their very understandable feelings about the things that they are experiencing. 

And it’s also important not to be taken by this momentary “Kumbaya” moment, where it seems that these very specific race issues have kind of evaporated. But to keep a keen eye – even our allies, and the people that we work with — to encourage this kind of tactical arrangement, with our interests at heart.

That happened without the film in a very beautiful way. But I think that in many ways “Residue” is so well-placed at a time when people are looking for weapons everywhere — from the on-the-ground street level to the institutional level.

So if “Residue” is one of the things that they grab in this battle I’m over the moon!

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