REVIEW: Medicine for Melancholy [2009]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: January 30th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Barry Jenkins
Writer(s): Barry Jenkins

“It’s funny cause it’s not funny”

We meet Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Joanne (Tracey Heggins) without any context beyond the obvious fact that they slept together the night before. They’ve awakened in someone else’s bed, eventually taking turns in the bathroom to brush their teeth with their fingers. She seems embarrassed, covering up and staying quiet as he awkwardly tries to drum up conversation and get to know this person with which he just shared a one-night stand. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Doesn’t taking her to breakfast and asking her name for the first time despite what they did erase the potential of walking away to never see each other again? The way she clutches her sweater yet goes along could be construed as fear. How drunk were they? Was there consent?

It’s interesting to watch Barry Jenkins‘ directorial debut Medicine for Melancholy today as opposed to when it came out a decade ago because of what’s presently going on with #MeToo and #TimesUp. These opening moments can’t help but make you wonder what happened the night before despite knowing both of these characters are good people at heart. That doesn’t mean something untoward couldn’t have happened, though. It doesn’t mean that Joanne wasn’t too drunk to know what she was doing and therefore felt unable to get away the next morning. She gives a false name, begrudgingly goes along with Micah despite wanting nothing to do with him, and tells their shared cab to stop at a street corner so she can walk home without anyone knowing her address.

What we soon learn, however, is that her desire to disappear had less to do with Micah than herself. Her embarrassment stems from not wanting her complicated life to be known. By forgetting her wallet in the cab in her haste, this truth is ultimately revealed upon his tracking her down via MySpace and door-to-door canvassing. Joanne isn’t a single woman out meeting guys at parties. She is in a committed relationship with someone who is out of town—someone who pays the bills and provides her a comfortable life if not also a sterile, isolating one. Her being in a position to wake up next to Micah could be construed as a cry for help, an escape from her malaise. Or maybe she just wanted some fun.

Conversely, Micah was out to meet someone—a black somebody. Here’s a man with a love/hate relationship with their city of San Francisco. He loves what his home has to offer, but hates his place within it as a minority (it’s explained that only 7% of the population is black). Micah lives in this sort of hipster culture, yet pushes back against the fact that this culture is dictated by predominantly white “tastemakers.” It’s therefore not surprising he’d end up in bed with Joanne or inclined to get to know her in the aftermath. He sees her as a unicorn of sorts. She’s a lone black woman in a see of white and maybe someone who sees him in a similar way. But she doesn’t—not intentionally anyway.

Finally we see them for who they are. She’s ashamed of risking her comfortable life with a white art curator who loves her and supports her to the point where she can stay at home and work on a minimalist t-shirt initiative shining light on female artists. He’s so enthusiastically pushy because he not only wants to be with a specific type of person, but to also ensure she understands the “why” to want it too. So they exist on different social planes where race is unavoidable. For her race isn’t something she needs to keep on the forefront of her mind because she doesn’t have to. She has been “accepted.” For him race is everything. It’s both a means towards empowerment and an excuse to demand sympathy.

The circumstances of their relationship are a perfect example of what this all means. Her seemingly unfazed attitude to spending the day with the man she cheated with comes from a sense of entitlement—of being above the law. His wanting to stay close and show her places she hasn’t been like the Museum of the African Diaspora or small coffee shops he knows is almost like a mission to save her from the brainwash job her white-led world has done. So there’s an unavoidable complexity to their interactions beyond her being an adulterer and him the “other man.” There’s a sexual attraction they both feel regardless of what they hope to gain from it. When their intellectual arguments hit a wall, their physical connection takes over.

We can’t therefore condemn their actions on a non-elementary level. What they’re doing isn’t morally right with an unseen victim impossible to forget, but there’s something necessary in them seeing this post one-night stand day to completion. It becomes an eye-opening experience for both if only to ensure they don’t forget the “other side.” Whether or not their conversations change their viewpoint is inconsequential as long as it gives them pause to realize nothing is concretely black and white. Joanne’s life doesn’t erase her blackness just like Micah choosing to live in a predominantly white culture doesn’t. In the end they’re both human and more than race. It’s San Francisco and its laws (or lack thereof) that have made it the opposite. This country refuses to advance equality.

Jenkins infuses the politics at the back of his romance in overt ways, sometimes at a detriment to authenticity. At one point Micah and Joanne walk by a meeting where people discuss the potential removal of rent-controlled housing. There is no engagement within, though. The characters aren’t in the meeting and those who are never interact with them. It’s simply a brief vignette of charged information that enhances the underlying notion of gentrification prevailing throughout the whole. Its abruptness is distracting just like Micah’s often-unprovoked monologues steeped in rage. But I guess that’s the point. We’re supposed to be shaken from preconceptions. We’re given the ability to dismiss Micah’s words as exaggeration like Joanne does in order to realize they’re anything but to him. They are his identity.

The same goes with her penchant to ignore race altogether. We’re given the space to appreciate that sense of colorblind living in order to understand its dangers. Because what is assimilation if not an acceptance of a way of life that might be unfair? Micah has an agenda with the way he presents his problems with society on the whole, but you cannot deny his fear towards it. Men and women of all colors should be able to choose who they want as lovers, but they also shouldn’t disregard the impact of those choices wherein phrases like “interracial relationship” do start to mean “POC with white” as opposed to “race with race.” Our actions do have meaning beyond their surface. Actions that ignore racism can also embolden it.

So Jenkins’ decision to play with color is more than to connote when the characters are talking about race and housing issues (the film is black and white when they are, saturated with color when they aren’t). The opening scene is silent and yet also black and white because race is involved whether we know it then or not—his finding a “rare” black woman in town and her cheating on her white boyfriend with a black man. Jenkins has made it so we know when his characters think about race too. He shows how little time in the day is actually purely about enjoyment and how even the tiniest of things can be politicized in an instant. He’s not passing judgment, though. He’s merely presenting the truth.

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