For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
“Residue” tells the story of Jay, a D.C. native who moves back to Eckington after film school. Upon his return, Jay’s met with a gentrified neighborhood, and he feels alienated from his friends as he searches for a loved one who went missing. The film deals with identity, racism and the effects of a changing city as seen through the eyes of Jay.
After receiving much critical acclaim, the movie was picked up by ARRAY, Ava DuVernay’s film company, and can now be streamed on Netflix. “Residue” writer and director Merawi Gerima joins us to discuss the film’s success, gentrification in the District and what this movie means for local Black artists.
Produced by Inés Rénique
- Merawi Gerima Writer and director, Residue; @Gerima_Gang
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about the rise in pet adoptions during COVID. But first, we're talking about the film "Residue," which tells the story of Jay, a D.C. native who moves back to the District after film school. He discovers his northeast neighborhood Eckington has changed dramatically. The film deals with identity, racism and gentrification in our rapidly changing city. And joining us now to talk about this recently released film is writer and director Merawi Gerima. Merawi, welcome.
MERAWI GERIMAThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you so much for joining us. Tell us a little bit more about your film and its protagonist Jay.
GERIMAYeah, I mean, you said it best. Basically, Jay is somebody who's coming home with great intensions to, you know, tell the story of how he grew up and his childhood. But when he comes back, basically, you know, the neighborhood is gone and his childhood friends are scattered, you know, left and right. So he's just trying to figure out, one, what happened, but two, like, you know, what does he do now in this new city.
NNAMDIWe have a clip to play from "Residue." It's a voiceover monologue we hear from the protagonist Jay at the beginning of the film as he makes his journey cross-country from film school in L.A. back to Eckington in D.C. It's the voices he hears essentially in his head asking him, "Why are you coming back to D.C., Jay?" Here it is.
JAYDid sense that our obliteration was right around the corner? You brought the only weapon that you have a camera. Who are you about to shoot, Jay? Did you actually think a script can make a difference? You thought a film could save us or did you see yourself as an archeologist coming to unearth our bones from the concrete?
NNAMDIThat was from the film "Residue." Merawi, are these fears and memories that went through Jay's head something you wondered as well when embarking on making this film?
GERIMAI mean, yeah, no question. You know, this thing was a totally personal endeavor. First I'd like to say, though, that that voice over is not really what he's hearing in his head. In my mind it's if one of his lost friends could speak, you know, that's kind of what they would be saying.
NNAMDIOkay. Got you.
GERIMAKind of seeing his efforts, you know, to fix things, you know, as best he can. But to me the film comes directly out of my experience. I think there was a point where I was trying, you know, to not let it be so. You know, to really kind of create this, you know, kind of fictional account and imagine something different. But every time I put pen to paper it's really just my memories, the mythology of my neighborhood, the stories I heard coming up, those are the types of things that just kind of came directly to the forefront.
NNAMDIWe'd love to have you join the conversation give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you seen the film "Residue" about D.C.'s Eckington neighborhood? What are your thoughts 800-433-8850 or if your own neighborhood changed in the past few years you might want to give us a call or send us a tweet @KojoShow email to Kojo@wamu.org or go to our website KojoShow.org and join the conversation there. Merawi, did you see this film as a form of activism and did that change at any point?
GERIMAYou know, I mean, certainly it came out of a desire to kind of jump into the fray regarding this kind of cultural battleground that's kind -- or battle that's happening right now in the city with the eradication of Black people's culture. But I think, you know, more central than that is kind of this -- the desire I think I have to kind of make sense of the totally different trajectory that my life has taken as compared to the people I grew up with, you know? And so that's kind of the heart of the story is him looking for, you know, Demetrius.
NNAMDIAgain we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850 has your neighborhood gentrifying and what has that meant for you, 800-433-8850? Merawi, this film ended up being autobiographical to an extent, but at first, it's my understanding you did not want to admit that, right? Why was that and how did you end up opening up about it?
GERIMAWell, you know, I mean, as artists I think that's the kneejerk reaction or that's the way that we set out or maybe we're taught to or whatever. Just to kind of, you know, maybe personally invest a piece of art, but, you know, at a certain point we try to disconnect ourselves from it. And I think that that's kind of a process of protecting ourselves, you know, because to say, this film was about me. This character is, you know, is feeling things that I felt. You know, you open yourself up to kind of having to account for all your insecurities that are on display, all your fears, all these, you know, maybe possibly embarrassing things.
GERIMABut, you know, I think once I kind of overcame that kind of barrier and just let it, you know, just allowed it to be as about me as it was trying, you know, I think it was a very freeing experience, you know, where I could just kind of, you know, really explore things that had been, you know, kind of nagging me for years up to this point.
NNAMDISo how much of the story is yours and how is your story in some ways maybe different from Jay's?
GERIMAYou know, I mean, I'm a filmmaker. I came back to my childhood neighborhood trying to tell a story about my neighborhood, you know, to find it completely eradicated, you know, so in many ways, that's, you know, my life is the premise. But, you know, I think that in the creation of the film, I was allowed to take it far and beyond what my own, you know, physical life would allow. You know, Jay does many things that I myself wouldn't do. But at the same time there are things that I totally understand, you know, and totally think, you know, is important for people to have the ability to do and to express.
GERIMAYou know, for example, just how angry he is in the film to me is an emotion that is difficult for me to access after, you know, 30 years of growing up in kind of this racist country that doesn't allow Black people to -- or that frowns about Black anger. And it's the last thing that anybody wants in this country. But in the end it's something that I think Black people should be able to access, you know, just as wholesomely as anybody else, you know? To me even a life lived with every emotion other than anger is not really a life fully lived. And I think at the end of the day we suffer from suppressing that. And so I think it was an important exercise for me to kind of put that on the screen.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Merawi Gerima. He is the Writer and Director of the recently released film "Residue." And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here now is Charles in Southeast Washington. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESHey, hey, Kojo. How, are everybody out there doing on radio land? I'd just like to say gentrification of Eckington, a neighborhood that Black people have lived in, I see that taking place in small southern towns like Ashville, North Carolina, Huntsville, Alabama, and they've been gentrified too. And I was talking to some people and it's weird, I've been moved around from Black neighbors they're been moved around. And they're taking people who are in the same plight, Black and white and the politicians are pitting them against each other.
CHARLESBut some are saying things that had happened in my neighborhood with drugs and death and suicide. It's taking place in the neighborhoods of these southerners and they become Trumpers or Republicans, who are against something. And I look to where we can bridge a gap between separation from each other as human beings and understand the (unintelligible) system that has been put in place here in America that Black people have been under ever since we've been here.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, I do have to say that the film "Residue" does not go into electoral politics at all. But given that Charles has been talking about what he sees going on in other parts of the country, Merawi, do you believe that one of the reasons that this film has been so widely acclaimed is because it has nationwide and maybe even worldwide significance?
GERIMAI mean, yeah, you know, I hope so. My hope is that it's taken up just as strongly in Oakland, you know, in Brooklyn as it has been in D.C. And I think that like the idea behind that is by and large, you know, the cultural kind of destruction, which kind of erupts, you know, from gentrification is something that is I think -- it points to every other aspect of it that we, you know, -- it shines a great light, a unifying kind of light in connecting gentrification to all the other things that, you know, kind of come out of it.
GERIMASo, for example, to me, you know, the film goes to great lengths to connect gentrification to police brutality to say that they're similar, you know, to say that our experiences right now in this moment under the kind of the racist kind of police oppression which we're seeing is all tied together. And so I think that like in many ways it is easily kind of applicable to so many Black people situations all over the world.
NNAMDIYou know, many of the actors in this film from main characters to extras were not professionals and many were from the D.C. area as well. Why I found that amazing is that when I watched the film I have friends who lived in the unit block of Q Street and who only moved maybe three or four years ago. And when I saw the guys who were sitting on that stoop, I could have sworn that I knew them that I had seen them before. So tell us about the casting process.
GERIMAWell, you know, I mean, that's the thing like those are my neighbors. Those are the old heads. You know, they were old heads when I was growing up and now they're still there, you know, fortunately able to survive through, you know, up until now. So the goal from the offset was to say, you know, we want a project really as an excuse to get as many people on camera, you know, to document the neighborhood before it was too late. So for me it only made sense that everybody I knew would act in it. All the locations are locations from my life, you know, my community to really pack it in, you know, so that later down the line, who knows what will happen. We can at least say that there's a record of our existence.
GERIMAAnd so, you know, with that as a starting point, you know, it was -- it's only natural that you kind of get that feeling from watching the film. It's mostly, primarily non-actors, people who I know, family friends. That was the casting process, word of mouth, you know, very few people who were cast in the film I didn't know beforehand.
NNAMDIWhat about casting the child actors who played the younger versions of the main characters?
GERIMAYeah, you know, for example, JaCari Dye is the young boy who plays the younger version of the main character. And that is the son -- at the time he was seven years old. That's the son of one of my best friends growing up. You know, and to arrive in the neighborhood to see him still there at a time when we're trying to cast this film where he can act really and play his parents' generation, to me it was the most, you know what I mean, the most healing kind of fulfilling process just the production of the film itself, just kind of the organic way that we went about doing it. And I mean, it doesn't stop with him. All the boys in the film, all the kids are from Q Street. Sorry, go ahead.
NNAMDIOkay, no. So I was right. I actually did recognize some of those people in that film from that neighborhood.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Merawi Gerima. He's the Writer and Director of the recently released film "Residue." But we're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you've called already stay on the line. We will get to your calls. Are you a local film maker or film buff. We'd like to hear from you. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Merawi Gerima. He's the Writer and Director of the recently released film "Residue." And as I said we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Merawi, you make a very interesting choice in the film. I was going to ask you about the juxtaposition in the film of gentrifiers and locals and why you decided to present the gentrifiers as a group of anonymous entities. But I'm going to have Ben in Washington ask the question in his own way. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENYes, hi. Thank you so much. And also, Merawi, thank you so much for bringing this story to the collective consciousness. Yeah, I just wanted to understand a little bit more about your stylistic approach. Initially, the white characters were kind of amorphous in the initial scenes of the film, they didn't have faces. And it seems to be an interesting kind of paradox where oftentimes being Black in D.C. you walk around feeling like you don't have a face. So I'd love to hear more about that approach and why that was important in the film.
GERIMAYeah. Thank you, appreciate you. Yeah, man, well, first and foremost it was kind of an economic or kind of -- the situation that we were in we couldn't find enough white people to be in the film at, you know, any stage during these two years of shooting. We were struggling really to find white folks to act in it. And so in that first scene when the guy tells him to turn his music down, we actually needed that actor. We needed his face to be the guy across the street when Jay goes and knocks on the door expecting his friend to open, but it's this white dude. So we couldn't show his face in that first moment. And so, you know, kind of when we had that -- that was the first day of shooting.
GERIMAAnd when that option revealed itself that we didn't have to show people's faces, which goes against you instincts as a filmmaker, once we kind of broke through that barrier, we were like, yo, this is actually amazing. What an incredibly opportunity to exercise our power, you know, as filmmakers. We have no power in the city. We really cannot stop gentrification, you know, in a true sense, you know, but we can -- we have all the power within the frame of our film.
GERIMAAnd so why not push white folks to the edges, you know, to just be a presence. Just like the police, you know, -- just like every other oppression that Black people face. We don't really experience them on an individual basis. You know what I mean? The way gentrifying white folks come in, like, we experienced them, you know, tied in like I said with everything else, and so we just felt it was such an opportune moment to express that visually.
GERIMAYou know, but also if you look at Jay and what he's focused on, you know, from a story perspective, you know, he's focused totally 100 percent on the people, who have survived up to this point. He's looking for who has went where, who's been locked up, who's still alive. You know, and so he's not thinking about really anybody else. And so even just from that perspective it just made so much sense to just, you know, keep the camera on his shoulder and focus on the people he's focused on.
NNAMDIBen, thank you very much for you call. On now to Mona in Washington D.C. Mona, your turn.
MONAHello. I want to congratulate Merawi. It's very exciting what young people are doing and being able to tell stories that have previously not been told. But I also want to make mention that Merawi comes from very great DNA film stock. I was introduced to his family through his father Professor Gerima from Howard University, Sankofa film. So if you want more from the family, look up his father too. And thank you, again, for the film.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Mona. I have known Merawi's parents for more than -- known and respected them for more than four decades. For those, who don't know, as Mona said, your father, Haile Gerima is an acclaimed filmmaker, who's films including Teza and Sankofa have won major awards at international film festivals. Your mother Shirikiana is a filmmaker and producer in her own right and she's worked on her own projects as well as with your father. Tell us more about your parents and how they influenced you?
NNAMDIYep? I'm hearing you.
GERIMAOh, sorry. Okay, I'm going to keep talking.
GERIMA(overlapping) If you watch any one of their films my films will gain great context. You know, my mother, she created a film called "Brick by Brick" back in the 70s, you know, about gentrification or what they called displacement back then. You know, so everything I do comes directly out of, you know, that experience of growing up with these two incredible Black independent filmmakers.
NNAMDIYour mother briefly appears in the film as well in a very moving and powerful scene. Well, actually two scenes. Tell us about that moment and how she ended up making an appearance.
GERIMABasically, you know, my mother was not supposed to be in the film at all. She was on set that day, you know, when actually the woman who was supposed to play that role, she actually was a no show. And so when we found out, I saw my mother who was on set just kind of helping my sister, you know, cater for the crew. She was bringing food. And she kind happened to look like the character. So I was like, Ma, you know, we need you. Can you do this? And we had no time really. She was kind of put on the spot immediately.
GERIMAAnd she didn't want to do it at first not, because she's shy or nervous or anything, but because this history of the neighborhood, you know, and these stories especially that moment with Mike that character specifically is something that she has experienced. She was in the neighborhood you know, many years before I was born, you know, with my dad helping to raise these kids who would grow up, you know, the generation before me who would grow up to be just totally cut down by, you know, the crack cocaine, epidemic, police, you know, war crime, you know, everything that Black people experience in D.C. in the 90s.
GERIMAAnd so for her it's very real. She's not acting in that moment, you know, and I that she just happened to be there and we were blessed, but that was the type of production we were running where it was very just like, you know, moment to moment. But God bless her.
NNAMDIAnd for those who don't know about Sankofa, that's the café and bookstore on Georgia Avenue launched and run by Merawi's parents. It focuses on Pan African literature, film and culture and hosts a range of events. Merawi, how do your parents feel about your film "Residue?"
GERIMAI mean, they're proud. They're very happy. I think they -- one, they were there through the whole process in production kind of off on the sidelines, you know, not really hands on. But while I was editing the film it was so critical to be able to show them, you know, different versions and get their feedback, you know, their very critical feedback, which is what you need and want as a filmmaker. But now, you know, I'm kind of just using everything that they've built as a launch pad to really kind of go and kind continue this kind of Gerima tradition of filmmaking. I think that they, you know, they've very proud of kind of this, you know, spaceship which they've built, you know?
NNAMDIHere's Chris in Rockville, Maryland. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYeah. Thanks for taking time to field my question. So I'm a young professional white male in his 20s and I love D.C. I live there now. And my question is, what is the way to responsibly, you know, become part of the community without eradicating that culture that's there? You know, I want to make sure that -- part of the reason we all come to D.C. is because of the culture that you're really discussing. And I want to make sure that, you know, while living in the city, we're not out there destroying it and gentrifying and really, you know, supporting and uplifting a lot of those ideals and the culture that you really speak about in your film.
NNAMDIMerawi, how would you respond?
GERIMAWell, you know, one I don't -- I don't take too much time to kind of answer these questions, because there's people who could probably help you so much better than me, but also, you know, my focus is elsewhere. But I say, at a certain point you do have to ask how. Though, you know, well-meaning as you are, how is it that, you know, just in the regular day to day pursuit of your own happiness you've been weaponized against Black people at every turn. You know, even just by going to get your coffee, you know, the convenience of that comes at the cost -- at great cost. And so I think once you start asking those questions maybe you'll be able to start getting to some answers that will work for you and the people around you.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time, but what's next for you, Merawi, and where else do you see local filmmaking going?
GERIMAMan, you know, I really hope that -- a lot of young creatives from the city have been reaching out to me. And I gave as much time as I possibly can to advise them through this. But like to me that path forward for young Black creatives and filmmakers with something that they want to say is to just get up and do it. You know, our whole mantra through the project was greenlight yourself, because we had no money, you know, nobody coming to help or save us. And so I think that like the more that Black film creatives in the city or artists in the city kind of take up that same kind of idea of just going forward, you know, despite -- under all conditions. I think that's the way to go.
NNAMDIMerawi Gerima is the writer and director of the recently released film "Residue." Merawi, thank you for joining us and good luck to you.
GERIMAThank you, sir. Take care.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about the rise in pet adoptions during the coronavirus crisis. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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