03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Medicine For Melancholy": Down, But Caught Out, in San Francisco

In his assured feature debut Medicine for Melancholy,
which was released on DVD today, director Barry Jenkins captures some
of the potential challenges of being black and indie in the 21st century. In
doing so, he has created a refreshing meditation on race, class and

If you missed Medicine For Melancholy during its theatrical run, the film is about two African American twentysomethings -- Micah
(Wyatt Cenac) and Jo' (Tracey Heggins) -- who get to know each other after a one-night stand in San Francisco, a city with the smallest proportional black population of any major American city. “I love this city. It's absolutely beautiful and it inspires creativity,” says   Jenkins, who was able to move there thanks only to the generosity of his best friend's parents, with whom he's been living while he writes and makes films. “But you can go for hours without seeing another Black person.”

The film explores this idea of being on the frontier and
drives it home visually. The film starts out and black and white and, as Micah
and Jo' get to know each other, color is dialed in slowly, but never
fully.  That's because class and race becomes the wedge that stays between
them. Micah jumps at the chance to talk about race with someone he feels will
understand the frustrating isolation he experiences just trying to live and
enjoy San Francisco and its indie music community. On the other hand, Jo'
doesn't want to talk about race. The fact is she's living this upper-middle
class life courtesy of an art curator boyfriend, who we're to assume is
white.  And she’s not able to
reconcile the life she's living with the ease she feels with Micah.  The fact that they can't bridge this gap
drives the film.

Frontiers aren't new to us.  Thanks to affirmative
action programs in the 80s, many of us were the only person of color in our
department or in our classes. The daily isolation was acute, but we could go
back to our community at the end of the workday or the end of the semester. We
had a respite from environments that weren't always as welcoming as they could
have been.

But thanks to gentrification, there is no Black community to
return to in San Francisco.  “It's
is a city without a middle class,” says Jenkins.  “And no middle class means very few Black folks.  Your community becomes your co-workers
or where you live,” says Jenkins. 
Or the people who enjoy similar activities as you.  In Micah's case, he loves the indie
music scene. But there's a problem. 
“Everything about being indie is tied to not being black,” he vents.

“Is it that
Micah needs to find more black people in the scene or more people who are open
to questions of identity in the scene?” Jenkins asks.  “And if he does that, does he [still] need to find more
black people?” 

Jenkins sums up the challenge both he and the characters
face: “It's kinda like, 'I'm still black, but I'm not doing things that are
associated with Blackness, so am I still black? How black am I?'”

Could the answer lie across the Bay in blacker, more diverse

Actually, Oakland isn't a viable solution. San Francisco
represents indie—independent, but unfortunately white—and Oakland is posited as
everything Micah's trying to rise above. Not deny, mind you. But he's looking
for a place where he can follow his interests and acknowledge his own
complexity. One film reviewer pointed out Micah's need “to embody and live a
more complex, dynamic blackness”. 

So, how can Micah and the rest of us get there?  “If there's a blank white canvas that
represents the African American experience in music, film, TV, etc., it has
very few strokes on it,” opines Jenkins. 
“The ones that are there are very authentic: Hip hop, jazz, R&B,
spoken word, the blues.  But these
characters . . . Micah and Jo'. . . a band like TV On The Radio.  Those are also authentic, but somehow
they haven't made it on the canvas. 
This movie is a very small part of broadening a more dynamic definition
of what it means to be African American.”

Just as the settlers had to endure hardships on the way to
extending the reach of civilization, perhaps this sense of isolation is the
cost of breaking out of limited notions of Blackness.  The good news is,
once a new territory opens, many more of us will follow.

Medicine for Melancholy marks the border of new,
unexplored terrain.  Hopefully, we
have the courage to cross it.