Medicine for Melancholy
Running time 88 minutes
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Tracey Heggins, Wyatt Cenac
Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, from his own screenplay, is his first feature film, and his IFC Film Program Notes attest to the movie’s limited budget and African-American working crew. The film is a one-night-stand romance set in San Francisco, where Micah (Wyatt Cenac) works as a supplier of aquariums for doctor’s offices, and ’Jo (Tracey Heggins) is a T-shirt designer. Though both are gainfully employed, Micah rants and raves about how San Francisco’s gentrification is driving out its African-American middle-class residents, who fear the demise of all rent controls. Matters have reached the point that San Francisco now has the smallest percentage of African-American residents of any major American city. To drive the point home, the director clumsily inserts a tenant spokesmen’s roundup meeting right in the middle of the film, with Micah and ’Jo not even present. This sequence makes one recall Sam Goldwyn’s famous aphorism, “If you want to send a message, send it by Western Union,” except that almost no one sends telegrams anymore.
The other subject Micah rants and raves about is the widespread tendency of African-American educated women to hook up with white men. Micah is motivated by his assumption that ’Jo’s constant companion on her cell phone is a white person well-heeled enough to furnish ’Jo with a fancy apartment “rent-free.”
Micah and ’Jo do manage to take time out for a rave session in a nightclub, and there is a great deal of hip-hop music on the soundtrack during their long evenings together on the town. James Laxton’s cinematography captures many of San Francisco’s mercurial moods both in the streets and in the many public places.
Of course, the big San Francisco movie noise is being made this season by Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which focuses on the gay community (part of which is raffishly African-American). Medicine for Melancholy has little contact with this behavioral minority, which somehow seems more empowered in this city than its mostly straight African-American counterpart. It strikes me that in these currently troubled times, the question of where one minority group or another chooses to live is secondary to finding employment anywhere one can find it, and then making one’s choice of a residential location accordingly. After all, America has always been and still is a country on the move, from sea to shining sea.
Nonetheless, Mr. Jenkins and his co-leads, Mr. Cenac and Ms. Heggins, achieve stretches of buoyancy and brio in their search for a romantic epiphany that never comes. Mr. Jenkins reveals that he was recovering from a romantic breakup of his own when he made Medicine for Melancholy. Apparently, the best medicine is a realized film from the scraps of reality before one’s eyes, and ultimately into the eyes of no fewer than six American film festivals and their audiences.