Medicine for Melancholy and the resurgence of the American Independent Movement

I’ll not make this a long post if I can help it.

I saw a movie today called Medicine for Melancholy, starring Wyatt Cenac of the Daily Show, directed by a first-time 29 year-old director named Barry Jenkins. The film was wonderful and evocative in tis images of San Francsico, a place I never liked but nonetheless felt nostalgia for in the wake of the film. It could be compared to multiple “indie” films, like Before Sunrise or In Search of a Midnight Kiss or She’s Gotta Have It.

It’s the last comparison which is so significant, as Mr. Jenkins, a young black director, has made a film that in it’s own way is as lyrical and knowing of its time as Spike Lee was at the start of his career. Medicine is an eloquent movie about race, love and San Francisco, with a significant change from the world of Mr. Lee’s films: In such films as Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever, Spike Lee explores the factionalized racial eras of the 80s and 90s, while Mr. Jenkins considers a world which considers itself “post-racial”.

The characters discuss race or argue about discussing race; they discuss class and housing. They woo and repel each other and we never get to know either one of them truly. This is because Barry Jenkins is not Spike Lee; he’s not creating a dialectic or a diatribe; he’s merely showing people in their place for a while and then leaving them as they leave each other. In this way, Medicine for Melancholy belongs as much in the tradition of Spike Lee and John Singleton as he does in the tradition of Kelly Reichardt and Lance Hammer, as noted duelly by the New York Times; it’s indie while being racially-aware.

And to the film’s credit, it is self-aware of this, as this is exactly what the characters debate in the film, but never cloyingly or sarcastically so. What we end up with is a labor of love, shot over a long time with little money, much like another favorite of mine, Frownland. In its idiosyncracies it also resembles the once-musical-now-film Passing Strange, which also followed a member of the black middle-class struggling with identity beyond normal or easy categorization. By virtue of its complication though, it comes closer to life, feels closer to truth in ways that are both simple and unexpected.

Barry Jenkins is the not the “new” Spike Lee, nor is he necessarily the “new” Linklater, one of his other filmic progenitors. Rather, Mr. Jenkins with Medicine for Melancholy has fashioned a movie with a composite identity all his own and in doing so, he is a worthy successor to either one of those filmmakers.

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