Two people meet at a party, have a one-night stand, and — in the cold awkward light of morning — finally get around to introducing themselves to one another. And maybe they even have coffee, and continue the conversation. And maybe even keep hanging out for another night. It’s an old story, but it’s just the starting point of Medicine for Melancholy, the exciting and fresh feature debut of director Barry Jenkins, which won the Audience Award at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins star as Micah and Jo, two African-American twenty-somethings living in San Francisco, where African-Americans comprise a very small minority; in fact, this town has the smallest proportional black population of any major city in America. What does it mean to be black in San Francisco today, in such a city? That’s the central question of this piquant love story, and it’s the question that sparks the most clashes between Micah — who, as a born and raised San Franciscan, wants to remain mindful of the way the black middle class was eviscerated by the Western Addition Redevelopment Plan — and Jo, a recent transplant barely conscious of that history, who’d rather not know too much about it.
In fact, where Jo would rather not think about race much at all, at least when she’s happy, it’s something that Micah needs to articulate often, especially when he’s flush with emotion, good or bad. It’s a question that really troubles him, and he’s got to talk about it, even though it ruins her mood. Late in the film the pair leave a club, a little high and more than a little drunk, and go for tacos, when they’re approached by a couple of big black guys in hip-hop gear attempting to sell them something. (Bottled drinks!) Micah refuses in good humor, but a few minutes later he exclaims: “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black!” This begins a heated discussion that nearly ends their second night together.
In an interview yesterday morning I asked Jenkins about that moment and a few others, where Micah seems to be struggling to carve out an identity for himself in the largely white hipster scene. His response was interesting: “It’s not that I feel unwelcome. I don’t think there’s anybody on Valencia who doesn’t want to see me on Valencia. It’s that there are a hundred things going on right now that make it so there are fewer and fewer people who look like me walking down Valencia.”
Would gentrification be one of these things? “Gentrification isn’t the problem,” he said. “Displacement is the problem, and unfortunately in San Francisco, it’s the African-American community in particular that has been displaced, and that’s not all due to gentrification.”
The film starts out with a well-worn deadpan style that bears comparison to the early Jim Jarmusch — although Jenkins says he’s never seen those films, it must be in the DNA of those directors he cites as influences, such as Claire Denis — and to that style, he adds a touch of pointed politics that will alienate some viewers but educate many others. There’s a scene where the movie simply stops to give some time to a Housing Rights meeting, so I asked Jenkins why he included that footage, given that it puts the narrative on hold for a few minutes.
“That’s one of those things that really divides people,” he said. “Some people love it, other people absolutely hate it. If I wanted to make this film, about these two characters in this city, then the history of this city and what’s going on right now would have to be important. If I had made this film about New York or Chicago, it would have been very different. I’m not born and raised here, but if I were, I’d be furious about what’s happened. So we wanted to have a character who had seen all this from the beginning, in order to get the emotional impact that would allow us to be so political.”
For all its politics, Medicine for Melancholy is an engaging and personable film. That might just be something about Jenkins himself, who I found to be one of the most personable subjects I’ve ever encountered, wryly contriving to make our 25 minutes into a two-way conversation, and making a point of connecting his answers with my life. You’ll find something much the same in this film, no matter what your background: a way of reaching for commonality in the face of all that might separate us.
Opens Friday, March 6th at the Embarcadero Cinemas. Barry Jenkins will appear in person March 6th and 7th at the evening shows, and on March 8th at 4:40 and 7:20.