Q&A with Medicine for Melancholy Director Barry Jenkins

Local film director gives this town a dose of its own Medicine.

Barry Jenkins' terrific debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, is an intimate and sociologically astute study of a young African-American couple spending a day together kicking around San Francisco after a one-night stand. The most remarkable thing about this bold, insightful movie may well be that its maker has lived here for just a little over two years. Arriving in the Bay Area by way of Los Angeles and Tallahassee (where he studied film production at Florida State University), Jenkins integrated (pun intended) his discoveries about San Francisco attitudes about race, class, and identity into a graceful, touching love story. We caught up with Jenkins via e-mail ahead of his S.F. International Film Festival screenings.

SF Weekly: It occurred to me in the nightclub scene that this black couple has little choice culturally in San Francisco but to assimilate. A moment later, Micah and Jo address it explicitly in an argument on the street. Would you describe Medicine for Melancholy as a portrait of a society where racial divisions are dissolving or where one culture dominates another?

Jenkins: Should it be seen as assimilation that a black couple is dancing to rock music? Progress? To me, it's a bit of both, though not for the reasons you'd assume: As much as culture domination can be pointed to as a cause for this forced assimilation, the dominating white culture of San Francisco causing all the clubs worth going to [to be] "white" clubs, one could point to the African-American community's ridicule of young black kids who do supposedly "white" things — listening to rock music, talking "proper" — as the cause for Jo and Micah being the only black couple on the dancefloor at this rock club!

SF Weekly: Micah mentions the Western Addition and Bayview to bring up the way blacks have been pushed out of San Francisco, but the film never gets near those neighborhoods. Why not?

Jenkins: It's extremely important to me that whatever issues raised by the film aren't limited to African Americans, but rather opened to all citizens of the city being economically squeezed in ways that have real psychological consequences. San Francisco is a melting pot losing many of its ingredients. This should concern and affect us all, not just African Americans.

SF Weekly: How did you decide to shoot in black and white? What was your inspiration there?Jenkins: One of the first things James Laxton (our cinematographer) and I discussed was the look of the film, and more to the point, how we wanted to present a vision of San Francisco that was truer to the city we knew. We wanted to visually express an emotional take on the city, which for me was a place of muted, melancholy feelings with occasional bursts of vibrance.

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