Residue: On the Violence of Gentrification
On a warm day in July, I came across a trailer for a movie. Instantly, I was able to tell that the blocks depicted were that of a city that is very close to my heart: Washington, DC. The next thing I was sure of is that this is a story about a real problem that exists in cities across America: gentrification.
Gentrification is a facet of systemic racism in this country. It displaces people from their lives, and makes it so no amount of roots planted matter. The incoming neighbors lack the desire to learn the history of their new surroundings, because in the West things adapt to whiteness, and not the other way around. Family businesses and homes are threatened or lost due to the extreme spike in rent, and the unique D.C culture that is born at the convergence of many different black identities becomes officially watered down. Gentrification takes memories and paints over them in such a distracting way, that it’s a struggle to remember the details of a once memorized story.
This is what Merawi Gerima’s directorial debut, Residue, is about. The frustration and ungrounded feeling of coming back to a beloved home, and finding it to be nothing at all like the place you remember. Growing up in the DMV, and going to school at Howard, I can relate to the feelings associated with rapid change in the city. I have ridden the train with young white women who referred to the Shaw neighborhood where Howard University is as “hip because it’s near the-,” she lowered her voice into a whisper for this part, “…black school”. This was about six years ago. Right now, only a few of the neighborhood staples I frequented remain in the area. It seems as though there are new luxury apartment buildings and soul cycles being erected daily, and it’s hard not to wonder where all the black people went in D.C. Residue is a film about the rage that is ignited by feelings of homesickness while physically being home.
Residue has been acquired by Ava DuVernay’s film company Array for the United States. It can be watched on Netflix and has been shown in select theaters. I spoke to Merawi while he was at the Venice Film Festival, where Residue competed and scored a special mention in the Venice Days section. We talked about what inspired him to create his first film, betting it all on yourself, and the neo-postcolonial nightmare that is going on in our hometown:
SY: I’m familiar with DC from growing up in the area and going to school at Howard. I can definitely attest to major changes in the last 6 years or so. It’s almost like looking at a completely different city. What was the thing that you would say changed in the city the most? The thing that was the ultimate catalyst for this project?
MG: The catalyst for me was noticing the downright hostility from the white colonizers flooding into the city. Of course, it had always been there, but I noticed it most in 2016. I had gone away to film school, and I suppose when I came back I was hyper-sensitive to the changes, and less willing to excuse the bullshit. I found myself getting pulled into confrontations with Karen, Jake and Billy, who felt they should be able to do whatever they wanted in their newly adopted city.
And it’s not surprising behavior when you see how the Mayor and City Council invite them in and cater to them like Destiny’s Child. Meanwhile, of course, Black people still struggling to be noticed by the Mayor and City Council that we elected. It’s the same in every city, and can be very overwhelming. I needed an outlet for my anger before I got myself into trouble, and the script was the best option I had. It just so happened that the film would become the best antidote to my feelings of powerlessness.
SY: How long did it take to create Residue, from conception to birth?
MG: I started writing that same summer, in 2016 (when Billy and them was trying me lol). I had already been planning on shooting a feature before graduating, as a personal goal, so this became the perfect project. My plan was to start shooting the following summer, in 2017, so I worked on the script throughout my second year of film school. By the time the summer of 2017 came around, the script was in a kind of ugly 1st draft stage, but there was no time for a re-write. Me and a couple homies from LA got to DC for preproduction with no cast or crew to speak of, and we built the production piece by piece, grabbing people off the street asking if they or their children wanted to act in a movie etc. It was wild but fun. I could talk about the insanity of the ragtag two-week production for days but suffice it to say, it was brutal. But rewarding beyond words.
I went back to LA to edit the film during my last year of film school, and found that we need to do more shooting. So in the summer of 2018, after I graduated, we returned to DC for 10 more days of filming and it was a dream. Our growth as filmmakers from one year to the next was high-level. Mark Jeevaratnam (our Cinematographer), Alex Bledsoe (our Producer), Lishan AZ (our Assistant Director), and Callie Nichole Lyons (our Assistant Director) are four filmmakers of color you gotta look into. The pillars of this production. They are absolute soldiers in the trenches when the cards are down and they all have other amazing work you gotta check out.
Anyway, editing and sound took about a year and a half and here we are now, gearing up for a Summer Netflix release.
SY: What was it like bringing Residue to life in a post COVID-19 world?
MG: Lol funny enough, I’m writing this while quarantining in Venice, Italy, so that I can be cleared to attend the Venice International Film Festival in two weeks. We’re competing in the Venice Days section. So that already tells you a lot about how surreal its been.
Fortunately for us, we got the film done right before Covid hit the US hard. In fact, premiering at Slamdance back in January was the best thing we ever did and set the stage for hella wins in 2020. There were some losses, as some big festivals and opportunities got canceled, but considering the fact that so many films never got a chance to even premiere this year, I’m grateful for every little bit that we get.
SY: What advice would you give young aspiring filmmakers?
MG: Greenlight yourself. At all times.
SY: Transplants not only displace native Washingtonians, but their presence also changes the way niche businesses are able to thrive. Black owned businesses, ethnic food marts, and various cultural restaurants service different neighborhoods throughout the city. In a way one could almost say they tend to characterize the blocks they’re on, (like how there are a lot of Habesha restaurants between Howard theatre and 12&U). In your experience as an Ethiopian American, and a Washingtonian, how have you seen transplants change the businesses of immigrant families in DC?
MG: Gentrifiers change Black immigrant businesses simply by the force of their preferences. You either adapt to white tastes or you go out of business. How many Habesha restaurants have you noticed serving tibs with less and less heat because white people no like spicy? Let’s not talk about the ones in Georgetown, where they serve everything with knife and fork. This is not to attack the businesses for adapting for their own survival, but to say that the buying power of white people so vastly outweighs that of Black people, that Black businesses can’t afford to cater to Black clientele. My family has a bookstore in NW, called Sankofa Video & Books. We sell books by and about Africans and the Diaspora. We have the largest collection of Black children’s books in the DMV. The community loves us and fights for us at every turn. But despite all that, it is still an absolute struggle to survive in DC because we insist on catering to Black people’s needs at all costs. (Which is also why the Black community fights so hard for us).
SY: The DC I’m used to is very Black, and a melting pot of different Black identities. What would you say happens to that part of the city, that cultural presence in the city, when there’s a mass whitewashing like this?
MG: Our culture is the first casualty. A Karen moved into a house at Georgia Ave and Fairmont, near Howard University (near our bookstore). The first thing she did was complain about a mural, painted by neighborhood kids, depicting historic Black heroes. Her complaint was that it wasn’t inclusive enough and she felt her son would feel excluded by the imagery. A few town halls later, after many Black people voiced their disagreement with her, Howard University, whose property the mural was on, stepped in and literally whitewashed the mural and had some rainbow coalition bullshit painted there to appease Karen. This should tell you everything you need to know about the racist situation in DC, and the Black institutions like Howard University which uphold and reinforce it. It’s a perfect microcosm of the everyday acts of cultural destruction which birthed the #DontMuteDC movement.
SY: What would you like to leave the audience with after watching your film, Residue?
MG: Rage, uninhibited.