Today in film history, January 30, 2009, Barry Jenkins’ feature film debut “Medicine for Melancholy” opened in USA theaters in a limited release.
When I saw Barry Jenkins’s first feature film, “Medicine for Melancholy,” in 2010, it existed in my mind as a hopeful love story, and it wasn’t until recently that I gave much weight to the characters’ “melancholy” for which they sought a salve. The film spans 24 hours after a one-night stand between two young black people, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), in gentrified San Francisco. The couple attract and repel, fight and make love, as they grapple with each other’s presence, a second fly in buttermilk that previously ensnared only one. Though “Medicine” was filmed in 2007 and hit the festival circuit a year later, it wasn’t released widely until 2009, the inaugural year of Barack Obama’s presidency. At that time, there was an impenetrable hope about what we as a country, and I as a black woman with her first corporate job, could achieve. My roommate and I found the film on a lazy Saturday afternoon in our Hell’s Kitchen apartment; the only window was in the front bedroom, and so the living room felt appropriately dark and contained, like a shabby downtown cinema, as the film shone from the TV screen like a beacon of sunny optimism. Two black twenty-somethings who find connection in mostly white San Francisco, my heart fluttered and my eyes were wide. Re-watching the film now, in the wake of an election season stained with hate, Jenkins’s first feature seems a more complicated, much sadder thing.
The story goes: Jo is comfortable in her bubble. She is a transplant who lives with her white art-curator boyfriend and who has the financial freedom to silk-screen T-shirts about women auteurs without turning a profit. Micah, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with his comfort, with the ease in which he navigates all-white spaces. As a San Francisco native, he is disturbed by his indirect participation in the city’s gentrification. He keeps a poster with the word “LIES” scrawled over copy from a 1962 “residential reconstruction” program that was believed to have targeted black residents for neighborhood removal. It’s on a wall in his studio; a wall that he probably glazes over when he stumbles in from whatever indie-rock bar he inhabited for the night. When he meets Jo, he sees in her a savior — someone whose skin color, whose essence and smell, whose proximity to him, can rescue them both from drowning in other people’s culture. Jo is black identity and connection and black love all in one; Jo is Micah’s life jacket.
Pulling people up from the depths of isolation seems to be what Barry Jenkins does best. In “Moonlight”, this year’s best film, both Mahershala Ali’s and André Holland’s characters find protagonist Chiron at his loneliest and most vulnerable, in different stages of his life, helping him to embrace intimacy with others but, most important, with himself as a gay, black man. “Medicine for Melancholy” is more preachy than “Moonlight” (the thread of gentrification is weaved throughout), but still less assuming by society’s standards—it’s easier to wrap one’s mind around the civil-rights battles faced by gay and lesbian people in a heterosexual world than to understand why a black person would still feel uncomfortable today in all-white spaces, because, hello, you have a black president!!
That mind set is reflected, on the surface, in Jo, played by Heggins with the appropriate amount of skepticism required of black women who are used to existing on the last rung of society’s ladder. She is not convinced that the two need to remain lovers, or even friends, just because they share a skin color. Cenac, a writer and comedian who is no stranger to the dangers of tokenism, plays Micah with both tenderness and ferocity: first he prods Jo awake, then he violently shakes her (“I’m a black man, that’s how I see the world, that’s how the world sees me”), then he embraces her until his loving grasp is too smothering, too all-consuming. In the course of 24 hours, they tear off each other’s masks and reveal a vulnerability perhaps not shown to their white compatriots. Six years ago, when I watched Jo leave Micah at the end of the day, I believed they would see each other again.
“Just stay here tonight, and go back to your life tomorrow,” Micah tells Jo.
Today, the movie takes on a more ominous tone. In the third act, Micah rails against Jo for dating a white guy and for subsuming to the “indie” scene. “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black,” Micah says. He laments that “people call it interracial dating, but it’s nothing interracial about it. Nine out of ten times it’s someone of color hanging on to a white person.” In his recent feature on President Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains how blackness conformed to the presidency, rather than the other way around. How the president was able to secure trust in white America precisely because he embraced his blackness; it wasn’t a gimmick and it didn’t cater to white ego; it was authentic but still also (miraculously) completely believing of white innocence, which gave Obama the space to be culturally unprecedented as an American president: hosting a party at the White House sponsored by BET or dusting dirt off his shoulder. Black identity is only allowed to go as far as the mainstream allows—there are checks and balances in place. Micah knows this. “It’s always one of us clinging on to one of them,” he says.
Now, when I watch Jo leave, and she looks up at Micah’s window before peddling off on her bike, my stomach sinks. I know that she will not be coming back. I know the temporary balm of their connection will not soothe a lifelong melancholy of existing in a world that exploits and rejects black identity. Their isolation is mine after witnessing the monster that backlash to Barack Obama’s very identity—his blackness—wrought. There will be no secret meet-ups, no hidden communications between the two, as Jo works through leaving her boyfriend for Micah. She will move to London or L.A.; he will stay to fight the good fight in San Francisco. They will both move on because there is no other choice. The memory of each will linger, occasionally reemerging every now and then when the buttermilk starts to curdle.
Amirah Mercer is a culture and fashion writer who studies the art and stories of black creatives. She has contributed to Vogue.com, Vice, and VanityFair.com. Follow her @amirahmercer.