Posts tagged ‘san francisco’

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

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

October 22, 2009 at 5:46 am 4 comments

San Francisco politics: The inauguration of Eric Mar

Jade and Eric Mar on the campaign trail, 2008

Jade and Eric Mar on the campaign trail, 2008

Just went to Eric Mar’s inauguration to the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s down at City hall today. I’ve known Eric, his wife Sandy & Eric’s twin brother Gordon since we were all undergrads back at the dawn of time, so it was really great to see him sworn in today. I’m a sucker for speeches that thank family members and I was especially choked up when Eric mentioned his late father, who died four years ago right around the time my own dad passed. Eric’s daughter Jade is just three months older than my older daughter so seeing Jade out of school and all decked out in her party duds to see her dad sworn in was also a kick for me.

Eric’s been a long-time activist and organizer in the Asian American community and he’s been a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised since our college days long ago. He’s been on the San Francisco School Board for the past eight years and this past November survived a bruising campaign to represent San Francisco’s 1st District, which comprises the inner Richmond. He and fellow progressive David Chiu were targeted by San Francisco’s downtown business establishment and were both subjected to smear campaigns that impugned their character, their patriotism and their personal lives. Today both were sworn in as Supervisors (Chiu from the Chinatown/North Beach district) in large part due to a huge grassroots support from their neighborhoods. Together with incumbent Carmen Chu this marks the first time that three Chinese Americans have simultaneously been on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco history.

As icing on the cake, David Chiu was also elected President of the board today. The process of his election was an interesting example of SF politicking—it took eight ballots to break the deadlock between Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who was supported by allies of Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the progressive candidate, who was at first David Avalos, then David Chiu. Eric Mar played a key part in brokering the deal that sent Chiu to the President’s seat. With Maxwell and Avalos in a near deadlock, with neither able to gain a majority for for several rounds, Eric switched his vote from Avalos to Chiu. He followed up his vote-switch with a cogent and articulate plea for supporting Chui as a President not only for Chinese Americans but for all San Franciscans. Veteran progressives Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly, who had withheld their support for Avalos, then switched their votes to Chiu, giving him the majority and electing him Board President. It was a subtle and interesting moment of political intrigue, clearly delineating the lines between various factions on the Board. It also indicated the political modus operandi of various Board members, as well as their possible future alliances. Mirkarimi and Daly clearly enjoy the bold power play—Eric Mar’s style is much more subtle and close to the vest. The five supervisors who supported Sophie Maxwell are an obvious voting bloc allied with Mayor Newsom—the remaining six supes are more loosely allied, with sub-alliances within the larger group. Interestingly enough, Daly did not support his former aide John Avalos in his bid for Board president but eventually threw his weight behind Chiu. Time will tell if the lines of allegiance will become more clearly drawn in the future, or if Board alliances continue to fluctuate throughout the next term.

UPDATE: here’s more information via my friend and colleague Malcom Collier.

Hello Valerie

Nice blog but not quite accurate – my fault maybe as I had a mental block when you were talking to me at city hall. In late 1990s we had three Chinese Americans on the Board – Leland Yee, Mabel Teng, and Michael Yaki. Yaki is 1/2 Chinese American, 2/8 Japanese American, and 1/8 Hawaiian Native. So unless you want to leave out the mixed folks, today is not the first time with three CAs on Board.

In case you are interested, I looked up the terms:

Mabel Teng, 1995-2001 – she was the first Asian American, not just the first AA woman, to win a city wide election to the board without being appointed to the position first. All previous persons won after being appointed first and running as incumbants.

Leland Yee, 1996-2001

Michael Yaki, 1997-2002

George Chinn (I think that is the spelling) was the first Chinese American to serve on the Board, appointed 1973. Gordon J. Lau appointed to the board 1977 and later elected, but not city wide – there were district elections then. Tom Hsieh Sr. won citywide after being appointed to a vacancy in 1986, then won elections in 1988 and 1992.

UPDATE 2: My buddy Danny Plotnick has another take on the board president election which takes the pols to task for their flagrant manipulation of the system. Change we can believe in or more of the same?

UPDATE 3: The effervescent sociologist, scholar and person-about-town Grace Yoo takes another look at the event, and the post-party spreads, on her brand-new blog.

January 9, 2009 at 1:23 am 1 comment

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