Why Can’t We Be Friends? Barry Jenkin’s Medicine For Melancholy

October 22, 2009 at 5:46 am 4 comments

Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Higgens get friendly, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Heggens get friendly, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

I recently caught Barry Jenkin’s debut indie feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), and although it’s been a few weeks, this modest little movie has stuck with me. Set in San Francisco, the film begins with a supremely uncomfortable opening sequence as two people wake up together in a bed and a house not their own, although they clearly know each other intimately–at least in the Biblical sense. Apparently the pair had a bit too much to drink at a party the night before and ended up getting busy without first learning each other’s names. They go out to a mostly silent breakfast together and share a taxi to their respective homes, but the female in question is obviously discomfited by their brief encounter and blows off her recent bed partner upon exiting the cab.

This tidy little fifteen minutes sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is a deft romance that follows a day and a night in the life of these two unlikely partners. They tool around San Francisco, experience some more quality time, and ultimately come to an understanding of each other and their awkward relationship.

medicine sf

Jo & Micah contemplate Afrocentricity, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

What’s pretty interesting to me  about the film is that Micah and Jo, the unlikely couple, are both African American. The movie presents an outstanding alternative to conventional representations of African American life, with no gangstas, mamas, buppies, or thugs. Interwoven with the film’s romantic escapades are some cogent points about African Americans in San Francisco, where the black population has dwindled steadily since the 1960s “urban renewal” (aka “Negro removal”) decimated the Fillmore. San Francisco’s population now has the lowest percentage of African Americans of any major American city.

Although the film frankly discusses racial identity, racism, interraciality and other hot cultural identity topics, it presents these issues in a breezy, lighthearted frame. Both Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Heggens, who play the two leads, are attractive and winsome actors and Jenkins coaxes engaging, low-key performances out of them. Cenac in particular spouts some pretty flagrant identity-politics dialog while managing to remain charming and appealing.

The film also makes excellent use of its San Francisco locations, shooting mainly at night and avoiding the usual touristy exteriors, and the city sparkles like a jewel in the fog. Although they seem almost too groovy and hip to be true (Micah designs aquariums for a living; Jo is an art rep), it’s fun to see them wander from nightclubs (The KnockOut!) to taco trucks to MOAD to Rainbow Grocery on their fixies, smoking pot and sporting Timbuktu bike messenger bags. It seemed very fitting to be watching the film at Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema, which is housed at Artists Television Access, the longstanding gallery and screening venue in the heart of boholandia in the Mission District. I half-expected Micah and Jo to show up on their bikes and hang out smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with the rest of the audience after the show.

Although some of the plot points are a glossed over or outlandish (why is Jo so quick to step out on her absent boyfriend?) the movie as a whole fulfills its modest expectations. Jenkins stated in the Q&A that, after suffering a failed romance, he wanted to capture the sense of being lonely, African American and male in San Francisco, and the film succeeds in doing so.

The film manages to look at some tough issues of race and culture without becoming didactic, dull, or overwrought. In that way it’s similar to another low-budget indie African American debut film, one that was released more than twenty years before Medicine For Melancholy. Like Spike Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, this film uses the romantic lives of its quirky black characters to take on much bigger and broader concerns. Though not quite as brilliant and exhilarating as Spike’s freshman joint, Jenkins’ film does what it sets out to do in an energetic, refreshing way. Here’s hoping Jenkins can maintain his light touch in his future endeavors.

Interraciality, Tall Enough poster, Barry Jenkins, 2009

Interraciality, Tall Enough poster, Barry Jenkins, 2009

NOTE: At the same Other Cinema program, Jenkins also screened several of his other projects, including Tall Enough, an intriguing short financed by Bloomingdale’s department store (!) in New York City. The movie looked at an interracial romance between an African American female and an Asian American male. The part where the Chinese American guy speaks in Mandarin to his sleeping lover tilts toward yellow fever, and the film’s title is a little strange (what exactly is tall enough, anyways? are you saying Asian men are, y’know, short somewhere?), but the portrayal is a step towards eradicating Asian male emasculation in media. It’s nice to see an Asian American man as an romantic figure and an object of desire, especially when that idiotic dickwad media ho Jon Gosselin is threatening to set back Asian American male representation 100 years.

For an good discussion by Prometheus Brown, go here.

Medicine For Melancholy is now available on DVD from amazon.com.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marcella White Campbell  |  October 23, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Valerie, thanks so much for reminding me this movie exists! I love Wyatt more than almost anything, and I’m glad to hear the movie was enjoyable. I look forward to seeing a romantic movie that, hopefully, reflects my life growing up in SF (ie a movie that is the polar opposite of anything Tyler Perry could dream up).

    Reply
    • 2. valeriesoe  |  October 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm

      Hi Marcella,

      You will most likely love this movie, esp. if you’re a Wyatt Cenac fan as he is totally charming in this one. And, yes, it’s the anti-Tyler Perry movie, imho. As an alternative/indie kind of person of color it was fun for me to see my peeps up there on the screen in all their bike-riding, Rainbow-shopping, nightclubbing glory. Have a look when it comes out on DVD (Lost Weekend will have it for rent) and let me know what you think!

      v.

      Reply
  • 3. Barry  |  October 23, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Hey Valerie,

    Thanks for pubbing the film! I checked out the blog post and definitely dug your take on MEDICINE, very balanced observations which are ALWAYS the most useful. I also dug that you mentioned TALL ENOUGH. Just as you stated, the point was to make a short that was “a step towards eradicating Asian male emasculation in media.” That was it entirely, so I actually don’t mind that the moment you mentioned veered towards yellow fever because the “yellow” charcater in question was, for once, male! And damn right there are asian dudes who are sexy but we rarely see them portrayed as such, but rather almost always in some form of emasculation. The title is meant to get people’s attention, it’s definitely not literal. I hoped the familiar and joking tone between the mom and the daughter would convey that, she’s meant to be teasing when she asks, and even in the daughter’s response, “tall enough”, it’s meant to be figurative as we never address any physical traits of the male throughout the film, instead the couple is presented as being a relationship through shared interests and occupation; in the question and answer section, neither ever addresses the other’s “culture” perse, I even deleted my questions from the audio to give the answers a much more ambiguous tone, they could be addressing any of a number of prompts with their statements but that’s left to what the viewer brings to the table, it was one of the small ways I wanted to bring the viewer into the equation with what many people see as a fable of a relationship, an idea or dream of one. I had to dance a bit for Bloomingdales so the ending is a bit mushy and literal but…for certain people it works, they need to see such a literal sharing of cultures and that was how I thought best to do it in the short.

    You ask: “What exactly is tall enough, anyways? are you saying Asian men are, y’know, /short /somewhere?”

    Not in the least bit! Stephen, the actor we cast, was actually too “tall” in so many ways that we took steps to reduce his stature (glasses, covering his biceps mostly, etc.) for my desire to not have the title be so literal! He’s an ex-marine, ex-finance guy who’s very tall and broad-shouldered and I did not want the point to be that “this” dude is indeed “tall enough.” The idea was to destroy the stereotype that “Asian men are, y’know, short somewhere” by presenting an Asian male character in a piece of media, branded advertising (Bloomingdales) who was a) comfortable being himself and b) a fuckin’ MAN =)

    -Barry

    PS: Did you think to laugh when they say they met at a Bloomingdales in China? I meant that as a joke and slight fuck you to the hand that fed me but no one ever laughs. Maybe in today’s world where so much is driven by commerce it’s not to farcical that there would be a Bloomingdales in China!

    Reply
    • 4. valeriesoe  |  October 24, 2009 at 1:20 am

      Hey Barry,

      Thanks for the great information!

      you wrote:

      Stephen, the actor we cast, was actually too “tall” in so many ways that we took steps to reduce his stature (glasses, covering his biceps mostly, etc.) for my desire to not have the title be so literal! He’s an ex-marine, ex-finance guy who’s very tall and broad-shouldered and I did not want the point to be that “this” dude is indeed “tall enough.”

      At one point when I was watching the film, when the actor took off his glasses or something, I suddenly thought, “that guy is really hot!” So I understand why you wanted to tone down his glaring hotness & make him a bit more ordinary, or it would’ve been too distracting and also would’ve made him too exceptional, which might have gone against your intentions.

      PS: Did you think to laugh when they say they met at a Bloomingdales in China? I meant that as a joke and slight fuck you to the hand that fed me but no one ever laughs. Maybe in today’s world where so much is driven by commerce it’s not to farcical that there would be a Bloomingdales in China!

      I think I missed that part but I’ll look for it when I watch it again. Or maybe I assumed that since China is well on its way to being a total consumerist society that there actually is a Bloomingdale’s there. ; )

      v.

      Reply

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