D. Scot Miller

Barry Jenkins


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.


Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor


PREVIEW The 2008 San Francisco Jazz Festival’s Vanguard Series is screaming. There, I said it. Both neophytes and adepts need to turn out this week for what will be personal milestones — those moments of "aha" and inspiration you’ll want to crystallize in something stronger than words — starting with mystic saxophonist Archie Shepp at Herbst Theatre Thursday. Considered one of the inventors of avant-garde jazz, Shepp blended blues, spirituals, and free-form music into a sound that transcends classification. Those who are familiar with his recordings are not getting the full message. Bearing witness is the only way to truly see.

Bearing witness is the only apt term for Cecil Taylor playing at Grace Cathedral on Friday. Taylor, one of the most prolific, experimental, and daring pianists in jazz or any other music, attacks the keys, coaxes polyrhythmic twists out of the music, and chisels chords from the dissonant, while traveling to the sublime and back again. Mix Grace Cathedral’s seven-second reverberation and Taylor’s inviting, deflecting, infuriating, and always inspiring compositions, poetry, and persona, and you get a religious experience. Go now — or regret later.

ARCHIE SHEPP Thurs/23, 7:30 p.m. (pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m.), $25-$65. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness, SF. 1-866-920-JAZZ, www.sfjazz.org
CECIL TAYLOR Fri/24, 8 p.m., $30–$50. Grace Cathedral, 1100 California, SF. 1-866-920-JAZZ, www.sfjazz.org

Sweetest taboo


PREVIEW The taboo has always had a special place in my heart. As a pre-adolescent, I was given a list of banned books from a rogue librarian and I hunted down and read every one of them. It may have seemed odd to find an 11-year-old black boy reading the likes of John Rechy’s City of Night (Grove, 1963) and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (Olympia/Grove, 1959), but these verboten tomes, along with the librarian’s free beer and porn, served as an illicit gateway out of my little coal-mining town into the larger, lustier world. If not for the innocence-stealing pederast posing as the coolest adult I knew, I might still be in that town, feeling like I was missing something but never knowing what. In short, banned books saved my life: I never would have read a single one had they not been banned.

That’s why it’s exciting, even titilutf8g, that the San Francisco Center for the Book, in collaboration with the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, presents "Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship." The 63 installation, multimedia, and graphic artists showcased at the two sites don’t so much address the issue of banned books as celebrate their favorites, which happened to have been banned somewhere at one time or another — and what great book hasn’t? Among those praising the forbidden at the Center for the Book are Enrique Chagoya, who offers a 2000 diptych to Burroughs, and ex–Black Panther propagandist Emory Douglas, who brings Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) to light.

BANNED AND RECOVERED: ARTISTS RESPOND TO CENSORSHIP Through Nov. 26. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. San Francisco Center for the Book, 300 De Haro, SF. (415) 565-0545, www.sfcb.org. Also Sept. 5–Dec. 31. Tues.–Sat., noon–5:30 p.m. Reception Sept. 5, 6:30 p.m. African American Museum and Library at Oakland, 659 14th St., Oakl. (510) 637-0200, www.oaklandlibrary.org/AAMLO

Speed Reading



By Herb Boyd


272 pages


Herb Boyd’s Baldwin’s Harlem is a successful primer on James Baldwin’s work and a well-researched travelogue through the history of ever-changing Harlem. But it’s also something more.

When Boyd, an accomplished journalist for the Amsterdam News in Harlem, was approached to write a biography of a native son and his native soil, it probably seemed like an apt placement. And therein lies the rub.

In the book’s preface, Boyd writes that he "felt a pressing need to defend [Baldwin] from some of those writers and critics who seemed to relish bashing him with each new publication, or renouncing him for being less than totally committed to the struggle for Black liberation." He then proceeds to relish in a similar type of bashing and renouncing — in this case, connected to sexual liberation.

Over the course of Baldwin’s prolific writing career, he had more beef than 50 Cent and LL Cool J combined. Baldwin may have possessed a postmodern understanding of beef as a way to gain notice, a knowledge employed later by the aforementioned rappers. Boyd continues this legacy by excoriating Baldwin (and the word excoriate). He does this through off-hand commentary wedged between well-researched biographical and bibliographical elements. These comments reveal more about the biographer’s none-too-flattering personal opinion than they do his subject’s life. One striking example occurs when Boyd describes a young Baldwin’s sexual deflowering by an older tough as his being "turned out." The homophobic contempt in that chapter alone taints Boyd’s portrait of Baldwin. Being a black writer from New York is simply not enough to give James Baldwin the justice he deserves.

Beyong the nerd herd


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REVIEW Amid impoverished rural segregation, my parents were part of the first bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. While my father studied Frantz Fanon and tae kwan do in Okinawa, my mother went on to be a probation officer in Los Angeles during the Watts riots. I was born in a riot-torn Washington, DC, around the time my father helped take over the administration offices of Howard University. I’m a Black Movement baby, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my number.

Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel and Grau, 240 pages, $22.95) is a memoir about growing up in Baltimore through the Black Power 1970s and crack power ’80s as one of the seven children of Paul Coates, owner and founder of Black Classic Press.

Judging from recent books such as Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to Shawn Taylor’s Big Black Penis, the black nerd has become the locus of pomo literary style. And why not? Who, besides me, didn’t love Urkel? Coates begins his tale as a sensitive black nerd — Beautiful Struggle even has a Dungeon and Dragons–esque map of Old Baltimore on the inside front cover. Swords, dragons, and Monotype Corsiva font chart intersections like Garrison and Liberty, where, as the author relates, "the Orcs cold-played me for my scullie." Ultimately Coates moves beyond the nerd trend, instead playing the vulnerable, reluctant warrior with grace and wit.

Initially unwilling to fight, Coates is sucker-punched, jacked, and tormented on the mean streets. To navigate Baltimore’s threats and perils means acquiring what he calls "The Knowledge": street smarts and savvy that is "the sum experience of our ways from the time Plymouth Rock landed on us." This knowledge is built upon the realization that "death was jammed in us all, hell-bent on finding a way out," and that a man shouldn’t measure his "life in years but in style."

In Beautiful Struggle, Coates contrasts his older brother Bill and father Paul. Bill is a popular player in a decaying neighborhood, struggling to make it to the outside world. Paul is a former Black Panther and full-time revolutionary attempting to raise seven kids to attend the mecca of Howard University, where he’s a janitor, rogue black historian, and would-be publisher.

Watching Bill embrace hip-hop, smoke blunts, chase dimepieces, and pack a biscuit, Coates becomes versed in The Knowledge. He sets it against his father Paul’s "Knowledge of Self," as drawn from Kwanzaa, Nkrumah, and the consciousness of being more god than man and more man than animal. In attempting to find a balance between these tropes, Coates invokes the words and experiences of J.A. Rodgers, Rakim, George Jackson, Ishmael Reed, and KRS-ONE with uncanny ease. He embodies both the hope and the bane of the Black Power movement, and his flashbacks capture its tender and toughening moments.

It is this tension that gives The Beautiful Struggle its potency. Coates charts the seemingly boundless optimism of his father’s generation and the rising cynicism of his and brother’s. He does so with a compassionate, poetic voice that is rooted in a no-bullshit grasp of his personal history and of American history over the past 60 years. To read this book is to catch a glimpse of the profound legacy and letdown of a generation raised to rebel but forced instead to fight disappointment, imprisonment, and despair. As Coates puts it, "The Knowledge Rule 2080: From maggots to men, the world is a corner bully. Better you knuckle up and go for yours than have to bow your head and tuck your chain."

Speed Reading



By Lars Svendsen

Reaktion Books

188 pages


As a once and future dandy, I’ve noted the growing field of fashion philosophy. In the realm of the academy, the idea of a unified theory of style has become something of a holy grail. The latest knight-errant, Lars Svendsen, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway, starts his quest by seeking the meaning of fashion.

Relying heavily on Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin, Svendsen (as translated by John Irons) creates a concise and comprehensive primer on fashion and clothing as it relates to identity. He then stitches on a virtual CliffsNotes of philosophy on fashion, citing Roland Barthes, Charles Baudelaire, and Michel Foucault, and then appliqués some hep quotes from Bret Easton Ellis, AbFab, and the Pet Shop Boys.

In the end, Svendsen finds that we cultivate surfaces, that we live in an increasingly fictionalized reality, and that our identities are in steady decline. He concludes that fashion is a highly diverse phenomenon that pretends to have meaning, but in reality "has meaning to only a limited extent." That’s it? Fashion has no meaning, but some meaning? How weak is that?

If philosophy wishes to find meaning in fashion, it must make room for the power of talisman, totem, and fetish — elements that pure reason cannot abide. Svendsen errs in a manner many fashion philosophers have, by refusing to look away from the runways of Europe toward the magical elements of dress in Africa, Asia, and South America. The eggheads just don’t get it.

Ten City


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For the last two years I have been trying to plant the term Afro-surreal into the collective unconscious. Unlike Afro-futurism, Afro-surrealism is about the present. In sound it conjures everything from Sun-Ra to Wu-Tang. In speech, it brings you Henry Dumas, Amie Cesaire, Samuel Delaney, and Darius James. In visual realms, the Afro-surreal ranges from Wifredo Lam to Kara Walker to Trenton Doyle Hancock. Afro-surreal stages are set for new productions of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1959), George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1986) and Leroi Jones’ The Dutchman and The Slave (1964).

I’m always looking for an Afro-surreal movie. Maybe I’m the last of a dying breed.

The 10th San Francisco Black Film Festival (SFBFF), is billed as a bridge between worlds. But which worlds? Sirius and Earth? Black and other? Local and global? Oakland and San Francisco? San Francisco and itself? Dammit, they all apply.

Most of the SFBFF is taking place in the Fillmore District, and many sites are redevelopment showcases. Opening night at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema presents Nogozi Unwurah’s Shoot The Messenger (2006), a UK import about paranoia, self-loathing, love, and redemption. The after-party is at Rassales, so I might get a haircut and brush off the derby.

Yoshi’s Fillmore is hosting Donnie Betts’ Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr. (2005). Despite its connection to ongoing gentrification debates, the venue will be an apt and stylish location for a bio on Brown, an overlooked poet-singer-playwright-composer-social activist who penetrated the zeitgeist with his song "Forty Acres and a Mule." Certain other issues also spring to mind: The black derby again? The brown? Pin-striped wool pants and well-shined shoes, or suede boots?

The Melvin Van Peebles Awards Brunch (props to the festival for naming its short film award after the Afro-surreal mastermind behind 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) is taking place at 1300 Fillmore, which will also host a screening that includes the 2007 short film Lifted. Directed by Randall Dottin, it’s a magical realist piece about a dancer on the edge who finds herself on the wrong side of a subway platform, trapped by a spirit named "High John." The actors are great, which is just one reason why the supernatural story takes simplicity to the brink of facile schmaltziness without tottering over.

A housewife realizes she has superpowers in Chad Benton’s Women’s Work (2008), a warm, funny sitcom short with animation screening at the African American Art and Culture Complex. Around the same time, Yoshi’s is showing Nijla Mumin’s Fillmo (2008), a documentary about the gentrification currently taking place in the Fillmore. How’s that for mixed signals, homey?

Footsteps in Africa (2007), showing at the Museum of African Diaspora, is about the lives of the beautiful, mysterious, and enduring Taureg/Kai of Mali. These African nomads have survived thousands of years of drought, flood, and famine, and withstood acts of genocide. Director Kathi von Koeber’s portrait reveals the wisdom and strength of some of this planet’s greatest human survivors.

Considering the documented decline of black people in San Francisco, it’s a minor miracle that SFBFF continues to grow. Like MoAD, the festival is a testament to the artists and benefactors who’ve come to San Francisco, as well as to the aesthetes among SF’s native population. This year’s festival promises glimpses of vast black realities — the kind that appear to be diminishing locally, yet somehow still manage to thrive.


Wed/4 through June 15

See Rep Clock for listings

(415) 771-9271


Been there, done that


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REVIEW Bruce Williams and Donnell Alexander’s Rollin’ with Dre (One World/Ballantine, 192 pages, $25) is a strange and sinister book. What makes it strange is that it’s actually about Williams, who worked as a bodyguard, valet, personal manager, and confidante for Dr. Dre. It’s his biography, not Dre’s, so it falls into the category of an insider’s tale. Typically I avoid this subgenre like I avoid the boasting "friend of a friend of somebody famous" at a party.

But as I read about Williams’ small-town upbringing, love of sports, time overseas, arrival in Los Angeles, and 20-year tenure as Dre’s confidante, Rollin’ with Dre took on a picaresque sheen. Plus, its story is intriguing. Thanks are due to ghostwriter Alexander, who helps mold a samurai-like image of Williams.

As for Dr. Dre, Williams and Alexander render him an introverted genius most comfortable in the studio, surrounded by friends and fellow artists. Suge Knight at Death Row and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope serve as the story’s ravenous, predatory lords, preying on Dre’s talent. Williams plays the part of loyal, selfless guardian from Dre’s early days with NWA through his blockbuster success with Eminem and 50 Cent. He keeps dire forces at bay so the artist can create masterpieces and travel the world.

A surprising thing about Williams’ book is how little actual sex and violence it contains. It’s rare that a tell-all is so frank without giving way to lurid gossip and dish. Rollin’ with Dre is a manly man’s tale, complete with free weights, fast cars, drinking contests, and plastic bags of stagnant urine dropped from building-tops. There are bitches and niggas here, yet the book is damn near scandal-free. In places it appears that Williams is still protecting Dr. Dre, only this time from the potential fallout of his tell-all.

We get the story of a reasonably stable, sober, law-abiding father and husband who once guarded a mutually beneficial arrangement with a mega-star by tapping into a cool detachment acquired from his days as a Marine and as a corrections officer. Indeed, a remote tone permeates even the most intimate of passages. When near the deathbed of Eazy-E, for example, Williams’ emotional investment in the moment seems sparse. With every flying fist, whizzing bullet, and falling body, he shakes his head, says "That’s a shame," and keeps moving. The same tact that served him well in his profession sometimes leaves the reader outside in the cold.

Still, Rollin’ with Dre‘s glimpse into the creative process of a world famous hit-maker is compelling, as is its look at the pitfalls and perils of the unscrupulous, violent, and larcenous world of corporate gangsta rap. Throughout the episodes involving groupies, the tales of blunts getting smoked, and weapons being brandished, Williams seems to effortlessly walk a tightrope that separates cool-headed big guy from Type A gung-ho asshole. Yet Alexander allows him to stumble on enough occasions for the reader to suspect the book’s overall sheen of sugarcoating. With violence, double-dealing, and revenge the norm, how could anyone survive for more than 20 years without getting a little blood on their hands? There seems to be a lot going on between the beats.

"Gangsta," Williams remarks at one point, "I don’t know if it’s right, but I know that it’s true." It’s that perspective that makes Rollin’ with Dre sinister.

Black, white, and color


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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 www.sffs.org.