By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 28, 2009)
Don’t let the oddball title of writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy throw you. It may share its title with an anthology of short stories by Ray Bradbury, but there is nothing “sci-fi” about this down-to-earth indie gem about love, African-American identity and the gentrification of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.
A two-character “morning after” study of a one-night stand in the tradition of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the film opens with an attractive, 20-something African-American couple waking up and performing their morning ablutions. You sense of a polite, yet awkward deferment between the two as they wordlessly descend the stairs of a very large house that displays ample evidence of a previous evening’s revelry.
Once they find their shoes, and the inevitable “So what was your name again?” formalities are dispensed with over coffee, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) share a cab. After Jo requests to be dropped off “at the corner”, the two go their separate ways. Of course it doesn’t end there (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a film). Micah spots Jo’s purse on the floor of the cab, and learns (to his chagrin) that she did not give him her real name. Hmm.
This is one of those films where not an awful lot “happens”; yet for the careful observer, there is still a lot going on. Micah and Jo spend a day together. After some wary circling, they begin to warm to each other’s company. They ride their bikes around San Francisco. Micah accompanies Jo on an errand to an art museum, where her boyfriend (currently out of town) works as a curator. They talk about their jobs. They make love. For all intents and purposes, they begin to appear no different than any other loving couple, spending a lazy Sunday together. Until they pay a visit to the Museum of the African Diaspora, which sparks a philosophical debate between them.
This is where the film’s central theme emerges: How do African-Americans define themselves? Despite the fact that he is basically a wisecracking, hipster indie culture geek by nature, Micah primarily defines himself as a “black man” who is becoming ever-increasingly marginalized by the creeping gentrification of San Francisco’s traditionally ethnic and/or low-income neighborhoods.
Jo, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that her “blackness” solely defines who she is, and pegs Micah as “…one of those people who thinks they chose February as Black History Month because it’s the shortest month.” Her boyfriend is white; a moot fact to her but a sticking point for Micah (or is it just old-fashioned jealously, cloaked in a self-righteous polemical stance?). Ah, mysteries of love.
One touchstone here (perhaps unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker) is Shadows, John Cassavetes’ 1959 film about the complexities of racial identity and the role that it plays in social/romantic interaction. The film has a naturalistic feel that recalls Cassavetes as well. I was also reminded of Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday, with occasional echoes of Godard and Rohmer. The director’s decision to employ a monochromatic visual look is an astute choice, as it’s all about the perception of “color”.
My only previous awareness of Wyatt Cenac is from his work on The Daily Show; he shows promise as a dramatic actor. The appealing Tracey Heggins has potential as well; she and Cenac have good chemistry. If you tire of the Hollywood grist currently topping the box office, Medicine for Melancholy may just be the perfect tonic .