Twenty minutes into Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins’ debut feature about two young African Americans fumbling through San Francisco after a drunken one-night stand, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) discovers that Jo (Tracey Heggins), the woman he just spent the night with, lives rent-free in her rich, conveniently-out-of-town boyfriend’s house in upscale Marina. “Is he white?” he asks her, a hint of accusation in his tone. When she asks, icily, if it matters, he responds, “Yes and no.”
It is the first of Medicine for Melancholy’s many political gestures, and its pointedness catches you by surprise—it feels oddly out-of-place in a film whose loose, peripatetic narrative, structured around the ruminative conversations and long silences of two strangers wandering through a city, seems to aspire to the easygoing mumblecore of Joe Swanberg and Richard Linklater. However, the dissonance of this moment is less a function of the craft of the film and more a function of its radical novelty: Its insertion of racial politics into a cinematic tradition whose signature product—low-budget, verbose, and naturalistic films that are “about nothing”—is inseparable from the middle-class whiteness of its characters and settings. Medicine for Melancholy was made on a tiny, $13,000 budget and reproduces the formal conventions of mumblecore, but it is decidedly about something. Specifically, it is about being black and indie in a culture where, as Micah drunkenly rants towards the end of the film, “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black.” His frustration is directed at San Francisco’s hipster music scene—“punk, folk, or whatever is not on BET”—that both he and Jo identify with, but its self-reflexive indictment of indie film culture is unmistakable.
Take, for instance, Linklater’s beautiful Before Trilogy, very frequently invoked as a comparison (and influence) in discussions of Jenkins’ film. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Jenkins says that while he had watched and loved the first two iterations of Linklater’s trilogy before he made Medicine for Melancholy in 2009, he wasn’t trying to make a “black Before Sunrise.” Which begs the question: Is it even possible to make a “black Before Sunrise”? Any acknowledgment of race—or even class, for that matter—seems antithetical to the fantastical nonspecificity of that film. Though Before Sunrise and Sunset are often celebrated for their chatty realism, Jesse and Celine are anything but real: They are figments of our Euro-romantic imaginations, floating transatlantically and ahistorically, their half-ironic, half-earnest banter consisting of airy nothings. The characters are so abstracted from the political, that the personal—consisting of anodyne musings about love, life, and self—is able to inhabit the entire universe of the film. In one of the rare, brief moments in Before Sunset when their conversation turns to the state of the world around them, Celine rattles off a list of grievances so broad and impersonal they sound like a parody of “woke-ness”: “We’re moving all our industry to developing nations to get cheap labor free from any environmental laws. The weapons industry is out of control. Five million die every year due to preventable water diseases. So how is the world getting better?”
Medicine for Melancholy’s Micah and Jo do not need to look any farther than their hometown for proof that world isn’t getting better. As they traipse through San Francisco, making stops at the Museum of African Diaspora, an affordable housing coalition meeting, and a rock concert, they are forced to confront how the city’s rich black heritage coexists with the rapid gentrification that has whittled its African-American population to just seven percent. Captured by James Laxton in starkly desaturated, soft-focused montages set to indie rock, the city is not just a landscape here, but a sensation: at once historical and ephemeral, oppressive and beautiful.
“How many of us do you think there are?” asks Micah at one point, wondering what proportion of the city’s minuscule African-American population identifies as “indie.” It becomes the question that drives their day-long courtship, born not out of some spontaneous chemical attraction but an almost desperate desire for companionship with someone who gets it. The couple’s flirtations through the course of the day are characterised by a push and pull, a constant second-guessing of motives, culminating in an argument about interracial dating: Micah chastises Jo, once again, for dating a white guy; Jo scoffs at his assumption that being black is enough to bring two people together. There is something dubious yet beautifully vulnerable about his attempts to guilt her into spending time with him and her conflicted yet willing adultery; it is a slow-burning exposition of how the burden of identity and the fear of assimilation muddy even something as instinctive and pure as desire.
Like the French New Wave filmmakers Jenkins often cites as inspirations, he operates in two registers in Medicine for Melancholy: discursive and narrative. The film’s romance is constructed as a polemic between two points-of-view about race—Micah, consumed by questions of self-definition and social identity, represents the “pro-black” perspective, while Jo purports to be comfortably post-racial, rejecting the idea of limiting oneself with definitions. The negotiation between the two, played out in little debates and gestures in the course of the film, parallels Jenkins’ own attempt to find a cinematic common ground between the personal and the political to tell an unassuming indie story about two people that is also a story about identity, place, and history.
But the film reaches its apex when, in a Godardian interlude as brilliant as it is inelegant, Jenkins completely upends the balance: As Micah and Jo look in through a window at a community meeting about affordable housing, narrative gives way to pure discourse. The housing-rights activists are filmed in the style of a television documentary, as talking heads deliberating the hard facts of gentrification, while Micah and Jo recede entirely from the diegesis for a few minutes. It’s the only moment in Medicine for Melancholy when the two characters, struggling to be both one thing and another—hipsters and black youth, insiders and outsiders, lovers and political actors—are allowed to step out of the film’s polemic and simply, invisibly, spectate. It’s a respite only the cinematic frame can afford them, the filmmaker seems to suggest, for the invasion of the political into the quotidian is neither clean nor elegant. Even as his characters mumble, Jenkins’ articulation is forceful and clear.