“Residue” tells the plight of gentrification in DC

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Sophia Ibrahim

When I first heard of “Residue”, a film following a young Black man encountering rampant gentrification in his neighborhood, I was torn. Was this movie going to be another “Black struggle” film made for white audiences, or was it going to be an accurate depiction of gentrification in the nation’s capital, once known as Chocolate City?

Thankfully it was the latter. Director Merawi Gerima grew up in the Northeast quadrant of DC and saw first-hand how gentrification took over in his neighborhood. The film takes place in Eckington, where Black protagonist Jay reunites with his family and friends after years of film studies at USC, only to see his childhood hometown completely swapped for a new one full of white residents.

Gentrification is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” Gentrification has become more and more well-known over the years, as social media applications like Instagram work to perpetuate the so-called “trendy neighborhoods”. 

One aspect of a neighborhood that makes it trendy is its ‘potential’. Examples of neighborhoods that are deemed promising in D.C. are Shaw, Columbia Heights, and Anacostia. When certain white people catch wind of these neighborhoods, they move in to enjoy what’s already there and ensure the neighborhood will match their vision. “Residue” documents the effects of these aspects from the perspective of those who are being driven out. Jay’s parents have been receiving home-buying offers for years, as the neighborhood becomes more gentrified and its previous inhabitants have been priced out to less expensive, more comfortable neighborhoods such as those found in Prince George’s County.

In one of the first scenes, Jay pulls up in his car to find a neighborhood much dissimilar from the one he grew up in; all home to people who don’t look like him. As he walked toward his parents’ doorstep, a white neighbor reprimands him with the connotation-loaded threat, “Don’t make me call the cops!”. This miniscule detail is of great importance, as it portrays the racial aggression that seemingly desired urban renewal and desegregation not only failed to eliminate, but might have also helped to reinforce.

White-Black interactions involving the justice system have a storied history in America. Emmett Till, Christian Cooper, and the Groveland Four are all examples of Black Americans who have been blamed and/or punished for crimes they did not commit, which can become all the more prevalent when these communities integrate but fail to erase their biases and prejudiced beliefs. 

Black people have made up 49% of wrongful convictions since 1989, according to data collected by The National Registry of Exonerations, despite being only 13% of the population. According to a 2017 report done by the same registry, Black people were seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder than white people and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted in drug cases. A quick, honest overview of American history and present will prove that “Innocence until proven guilty” has never applied to Black people as a whole in America, and in instances like the interaction with Jay’s neighbor, it can be deadly. 

“Residue” creates a raw and emotional atmosphere that humanizes those who are forced out and villanizes those moving in. This narrative, while clearly biased, conveys the points of view of those ignored in the effort to “better” their own neighborhoodsーit’s not, it’s just erasing and whitewashing BIPOC history. Minority residents of the “coveted” neighborhoods are shown to be relocated to unsafe areas with a severe lack of amenities – reliable electricity, clean water, and fresh food – criteria that most everyone else considers a given. Instead of bettering the lives of those who already live there, developers overhaul historic buildings to conform to middle-class white residents’ taste, while investors seek fast monetary gains and an always-reliable abundant wallet. A free market is one of the cornerstones of America, but it also perpetuates greed: the rich gets richer and the poor stays poor or gets poorer. The question of all this is, at what cost?

At what cost are we growing the government’s budget? 

At what cost are we increasing integration? 

Is forced integration the same as willing integration? 

Is integration as we know it an effort to better everyone’s lives, or does it further diminish the voices of unheard residents who have resided in DC for generations?

Gerima’s goal was achieved: his debut feature film does a poignant job of conveying the realities of gentrification, fixating on the communities that are torn apart and the locals that suffer. In addition to stunning visuals and an all-too-close-to-home reality, “Residue” is a film that all DC residents should watch to understand, empathize, and prevent anymore hurt from being done.