Black, white, and color

Pub date April 30, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Clip this article. Put it on your refrigerator to remind yourself, your roommates, your friends and family to see Medicine For Melancholy.

The story seems simple. In the aftermath of a party, two 20-something San Franciscans wake up in bed together with no recollection of how they got there. They exchange names at a Noe Valley coffee shop and share a cab in cold silence with no attempt to reconnect. She leaves her wallet behind. He hunts her down online to return it. From there, they begin a convincing dance of seduction infused with excitement, disclosure, and tenderness. Micah (Wyatt Cinach) is immature, self-effacing, and strong, while Jo (Tracey Heggins) is confident, grown-up, and intense. What they learn about each other — and what the film reveals — is on par with any postmodern romance. Writer-director Barry Jenkins has created complex characters trying to negotiate simple feelings in a difficult world.

It’s always enriching to see talented artists at work. In mixing black and white with color to explore the relationship between setting and dialogue, director of photography James Laxton captures the sublime and gritty sides of San Francisco. The city he sees is the city we know. From the grassy lands of Noe Valley to the quiet hush of the Tenderloin at dawn, Laxton’s eye makes the nearly deserted SF that the two main characters inhabit lush, promising, and sinister.

Medicine for Melancholy is important because it spotlights the most overlooked aspect of SF’s changing face: black people, and the lack thereof. Micah and Jo are black and their race plays into the affair in surprising and subtle ways.

Jenkins has said that Medicine for Melancholy is "a simple, straightforward film that illuminates the modern complexities of living as a declining minority in America’s major cities." At the time Medicine for Melancholy was filmed, SF’s black population was 7 percent and dropping. As one of the remaining black people in SF, I know that black flight is a reality here. The self-evident gentrification and anti-black sentiment of the city play heavily into the dynamic of this movie’s couple: Micah doesn’t do SFMOMA; Jo hadn’t known that MoAD existed. Micah sees himself as black first and a man second. Jo refuses to define herself.

At Micah’s apartment, a poster with a 1962 quote from the Redevelopment Agency sparks a conversation. Jo wants to let go of the past. Micah, the native, sees the poster as relevant to Mission Bay.

"Why is everything that is ‘indie’ mean ‘not black?’" Micah asks at one point. Conversations like these have been going on among my dwindling number in San Francisco for too long. Until now, only we have heard them.

Tell people about Medicine for Melancholy. In the face of an impending cultural extinction and the potential loss of SF’s soul, this excellent movie is part of a necessary discussion.


Wed/30, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/4, 8:15 p.m., PFA; May 7, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 8. Venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk. For tickets (most shows $12.50) and information call (925) 866-9559 or visit