Barry Jenkins

Pub date November 5, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy was one of the biggest successes of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, but it almost didn’t happen.

"We shot the movie fast and thought maybe we could pass it around to friends," Jenkins says. "I started cutting it and said to myself, ‘This is really coming together. Fuck it, let’s try to get it into the San Francisco International Film Festival.’ I looked on the website and the deadline had already passed. But I’d stopped (San Francisco Film Society Executive Director) Graham Leggat coming out of the bathroom at another film festival — it was rude, you should never stop someone coming out of the bathroom — and he remembered me and gave my film a fair viewing. God bless him."

Medicine For Melancholy, Jenkins’ first feature, is a love story about Micah (Wyatt Cinach) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), two black San Franciscans who come together and fall apart over a 24-hour period. Race, displacement, and resentment play into their affair in surprising and subtle ways.

"I had the idea for this movie years ago," Jenkins says, "and I’d placed it in Chicago or New York City, but to me the city had to be a character. That could only be San Francisco. It would be silly for Micah to be so into Jo in New York or Chicago. [Meeting] Jo here makes him like an explorer in the Amazon who has come across an endangered species. He wants to run everything that’s happening, to him and the city, by her. If he would shut the fuck up, he could get the girl."

Though framed as a romance, Medicine tackles one of the most pressing — and overlooked — issues in San Francisco: black people, and the city’s lack thereof.

"Micah is based on this person I became after my first functional interracial relationship dissolved," Jenkins says. "When I moved to San Francisco, I was viewing the city through the prism of this relationship, living in this great, multi-culti San Francisco. When that relationship ended, San Francisco became a different place. There’s a great indie arts scene here, a great indie music scene, but they’re predominantly, if not entirely, white. You don’t consciously become aware of it until one day you look around and say, ‘Oh shit, I’m the Last Black Man on Earth!’

"The question became: Is there a place for me as a black man in San Francisco? Sure, there is. In LA, I couldn’t write for two years. I come to San Francisco and over the first eight months, I’d written five screenplays. One of which became my first film. But it seems like nothing can stem the tide of the migration of all people of a certain economic background — people who’ve had to leave San Francisco, and who are now commuting to keep the city beautiful for people who make tons of money.

"For a time, there was a proliferation of gentrification in San Francisco, but it is shifting to displacement, and not just displacement based on race, but displacement of anyone who cannot afford to live here. And I think the reason it has proliferated is because not enough folks have taken the city to task. There have been folks, like the Guardian, who write about this shit all the time, but a lot of folks have been afraid to speak out."

This writer is here to tell you: it’s not too late.