Guest contributor Nzingha Kendall reflects on Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy in anticipation of IU Cinema’s screenings of Jenkins’s acclaimed new feature film Moonlight later this week.
Barry Jenkins’s first feature Medicine for Melancholy: two gorgeous black people embarking on a love story, one that’s doomed from the start. Perhaps these kinds of love stories are the most interesting, precisely because they don’t last. There’s the attraction, fleeting, but fiercely palpable. Medicine for Melancholy is a snapshot, a slow burn of 24 hours condensed into an hour-and-a-half movie.
At once a commentary on gentrification and the ever-decreasing population of African Americans in the city of San Francisco, as well as a study of two 20-somethings getting to know each other following an unexpected one-night stand, Medicine for Melancholy is also about connections. It asks how black folks connect. What do we reveal about ourselves in order to get to know each other? Does talking limit our ability to really know someone? How are connections forged through touch, through series of exchanged glances?
Here, a tentative conversation between Jo (Tracey Heggins) and Micah (Wyatt Cenac) as they walk through the streets of downtown San Francisco results in a carefree jaunt on a carousel. The sense of joy as they delight in the round and round of the ride is infectious. Indeed, the subtly gradual increase in color reinforces a vibrant connection between the two characters.
Jenkins has said in various interviews that Medicine for Melancholy was inspired by Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir (Friday Night). The above clip features music composed by Dickson Hinchcliffe, one of Denis’s frequent collaborators. In this clip from Denis’s film, which also centers on a one-night stand, you hear the same music is on the soundtrack, “Le Rallye,” performed by Tindersticks:
Like Denis, Jenkins is at ease letting the story unfold at a leisurely pace. In both films minimal dialogue works in tandem with the looks the characters give each other. As so much is left unsaid, we are then compelled to pay close attention to what we see. Denis and Jenkins give us time to contemplate their characters’ faces, to take in their gestures. There’s a seduction happening onscreen; maybe we are being seduced as well?
In Medicine for Melancholy — as well as in Moonlight — Jenkins focuses his attention on black characters who want to be seen. Nonetheless, they construct fortresses around themselves, as they do not want to be defined solely by their weaknesses. Jenkins’s characters crave connection. They test whether they can risk vulnerability. Can you really trust this other person? Can you ever really know someone? Is seeing knowing? What do you see? Who do you see?
Claire Denis visited IU Cinema in November 2012 for a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture and screenings of seven of her films during the Claire Denis – Confronting the Other film series.
Nzingha Kendall is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has developed programs for the Black Film Center/Archive and the IU Cinema. After years of watching and analyzing films, she has recently started making them.