Almost as soon as Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) returns home to Washington, D.C., there’s a hassle. A weedy white dude glances up from his cellphone to tell Jay, who’s Black, that the music coming from his pickup truck is too loud, and also that he’s double-parked. As if Jay himself can’t see that.
“Residue,” a debut feature directed, written and edited by Merawi Gerima, reveals a directorial voice as distinctive and anguished as that of his father, Haile Gerima, whose filmography contains such underappreciated masterworks as “Ashes and Embers” and “Sankofa.”
While living in Los Angeles, Jay had tried to get an autobiographical film project off the ground, and this movie’s opening, as roads and tunnels recede while he drives east, reflects his doubts: “Did you actually think that script could make a difference?” he asks himself in voice over. “You thought that film could save us?”
Once back home in D.C., he seeks out old friends and discovers that his neighborhood is just remnants — residue — of what it used to be, and the people from his past who remain are indifferent, even hostile, to his inquiries.
Interspersed with his uneasy here-and-now are flashbacks to his childhood, in which sounds of menacing gunfire and celebratory fireworks become emblematic. Ebullience and deprivation ooze into each other and become inextricable.
Gerima’s challenging, engrossing filmmaking style is measured, simultaneously realistic and impressionistic. What’s out of the frame is often as important, if not more important, than what’s in the frame. As when Jay, climbing out of his basement in the dead of night, sees an old buddy passing by; through the grate of a fence they have a fraught conversation, made more so by the sight of the blue lights of an unseen police car bouncing off their faces.
In another scene, Jay walks through the woods with a friend, Dion (Jamal Graham). They reminisce about old times amid this greenery, but it’s soon clear that he and Dion are actually in the visiting room of a jail, and that the restful environment is in Jay’s imagination.
Jay’s confusion and rage over the gentrification of Q Street and beyond can’t help but spill over. Gerima layers the soundtrack with overheard conversations of utterly clueless white people, making any viewer empathize with the protagonist’s anger and impotence.