Distributed: Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy" found distribution with IFC and opens in the Bay Area March 6. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: Barry Jenkins' San Francisco Story

Michael Fox April 26, 2008

Two young, attractive African Americans, a man and a woman, wake up in a strange house in a nice San Francisco neighborhood, avoid each other as they dress and slip out the front door in awkward silence. But Micah’s not ready to let go of Jo’. So begins Barry Jenkins’s indie debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a graceful, poignant and altogether marvelous film about fleeting urban connections, black identity and invisibility, cultural adventures and this gentrified city’s lost soul. Jenkins studied film production at Florida State University before heading to the industry town of LA. He soon relocated to San Francisco, and with stunning alacrity wrote, shot and completed Medicine for Melancholy. Jenkins was screening the movie at a Florida festival prior to its upcoming local premiere in the San Francisco International Film Festival, so we conducted the following pithy interview via email.

SF360.org has been running a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers in the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs through May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations.

SF360: What did you learn in Los Angeles, and why did you move to San Francisco?

Barry Jenkins: I moved here in February, 2006, after two years in the Harpo Films [Oprah Winfrey’s company] system. Was a director’s assistant on [Harpo’s made-for-television] film adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then a development assistant in the company’s office in Beverly Hills. Coming straight out of undergrad into those two jobs seemed like a steal; people were very happy for me. But in the end, I felt unfulfilled. The LA experience just wasn’t right for me at that time.

SF360: What has been your involvement and connection with the Bay Area film community?

Jenkins: I really don’t feel like I’ve had any involvement or connection with the Bay Area film community. Well, let me qualify that: I’ve been a big fan of the film festival scene here, particularly the San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the Frameline [LGBT] Film Festival. As a filmgoer and lover, I’ve found plenty of Bay Area stimulus to occupy myself with, especially in the blogging community where two of the most respected film bloggers on the net, "Brian Darr": http://hellonfriscobay.blogspot.com/ and "Michael Guillen": http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/, are Bay Area writers. As a filmmaker, however, I can’t say I’ve found any connection. Nearly the entire crew of Medicine for Melancholy consisted of friends I made at Florida State’s film school (including local cinematographer James Laxton, who’s mother, Aggie Rodgers, was a member of the Fog City Mavericks crew honored during the 50th SFIFF). The only truly Bay Area [crew] were the sound guys.

SF360: It’s about time that a film acknowledged SF’s racial makeup and history. Was there an incident in your own life that sparked the realization about this city’s institutional and economic attitude toward blacks and gentrification, and inspired the film?

Jenkins: Well, the film initially spun out of the dissolution of my first interracial relationship. Having that experience in a city so racially stratified was a definite inspiration for the film. And yet, I can’t say it was necessarily an incident, like a lightning bolt moment, but rather a series of observations culled together over the first two years of my living in the city. While I wasn’t born and raised here, I worked side by side with people who were. Listening to them talk about the city in these nostalgic terms, a nostalgia that sometimes stretched 40 years back but more often than not, little more than a decade back to the days before the dotcom boom, really inspired me to research the phenomenon myself. Needless to say I was struck by the ‘institutional and economic’ attitude you mentioned. As an outsider, it ran completely counter to what I expected of San Francisco, to the public persona projected to outsiders of the city.

SF360: There’s not much anger in the movie. Why did you adopt the tone you chose? As a white guy, I didn’t find the film confrontational or discomfiting. How important was it to you to make a film that wouldn’t raise white people’s hackles?

Jenkins: I’m not an angry guy, just don’t have it in me. I’ve always felt there’s a way to deal with anger, to temper it without losing its impact, and if there’s a cause for the tone of the film it lies with this. It’s funny, I gave the script to a white friend, someone I really trust and respect, and one of the main comments she gave me was almost verbatim to what you just said, an almost disappointment with the lack of that confrontational or discomforting tone you mention. I don’t know where that expectation comes from, but for me dealing with these issues through the characters comes first and foremost, and in so much as they (the characters) are confrontational or discomforting the film will be. The character Jo’ is of the new progressive twenty-something urbanite clan who feel they’ve moved beyond race, so there’s little confrontational in her, and the character Micah is so driven by a broken heart that very little of what he says can be taken seriously in a sociopolitical context. To derive a confrontational tone from characters living in these emotional states would be a gross mistreatment on my part.

SF360: Is that why you have the white community activists, rather than Micah, deliver arguably the most biting words in the film?

Jenkins: Those white activists who deliver ‘arguably the most biting words’ of the film do so because it’s what they do, seven days a week, in real life. It’s a real meeting and those are not actors, they’re not reading from a script. I tried putting those thoughts into Micah’s mouth but they felt forced, unearned and untrue. We injected the activists because the issues were important enough to me that they necessitated a literal ‘break’ from the narrative. It’s one of the film’s best ironies that, despite his ranting, Micah is as much an agent of gentrification as anyone else: a ‘Y’oung, ‘U’rban, ‘P’rofessional paying hundreds of dollars too much per month for an apartment whilst driving up rent for (and pushing out) longtime residents he has very little interaction with.

SF360: Micah mentions the Western Addition and Bayview to bring up the way blacks have been pushed out of San Francisco, but we never get near those neighborhoods. Why not?

Jenkins: I’m glad you mentioned this as to me it’s one of the most important aspects of the film’s take on the city. Despite Micah’s preoccupations with race, class as much as race ultimately drives the film. There is nothing about Micah or Jo’s lifestyles that would take the film to Hunters Point or the Fillmore. If economically impoverished whites or Asian Americans were living in those neighborhoods, there’s no doubt in my mind they too would be pushed out just as African Americans have. To wit, the old tenement hotels filled with disenfranchised senior citizens and long forgotten vets that once stood where the Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Complex now stand is a perfect example of color-blind displacement. Micah and Jo’ share an intimate moment in these very spaces and, to me, the thought never crosses their minds. San Francisco is tricky that way, histories systematically trampled over, replaced with upwardly mobile dreamers packing ambition and a short-term memory. I listened to [Sen. Barack] Obama’s speech on race and, while most of it was fine, his thoughts of ‘binding our particular grievances-for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs- to the larger aspirations of all Americans’ were extremely affecting.

SF360: Let’s talk about black identity and assimilation, which is the heart of the film. I’m thinking specifically of the club scene, where everyone else is white. Is Medicine for Melancholy about a world where young people are increasingly colorblind, or where the minority is subordinate to the majority?

Jenkins: Ah ha! I’m gonna take a cue from [Francis Ford] Coppola and say that ‘making a movie is like asking a question, and when you finish, the movie itself is the answer.’ To me, the question of whether racial divisions are dissolving or whether one culture dominates another is the central question for Jo’ and Micah, that struggle to identity oneself by choosing to dictate your perspective through endorsing one take or the other, she endorsing the former while he prefers the latter. And the city, as a third character, spins on a completely different though relatable wheel, its struggle with identity having to do with housing rights and the way real estate regulations affect the makeup of its citizens. For all three, it’s a matter of perception and I’m not choosing sides. Instead, I think the film presents a portrait of the city and these characters and leaves you with the very same questions: Are we a society where racial divisions are dissolving or a society where one culture dominates another? Are we a city where the upper-middle class and the poor coexist on the porches of cafes and in modest taquerias or one where the influx of wealth displaces the economically disadvantaged into smaller and smaller pockets of the city removed from its cultural, political and economic dialogue? Because at the end of the day you’re absolutely right, in that scene you totally get that ‘this black couple had little choice culturally in SF to assimilate.’ Or did they? …

The scene you’re talking about was shot to ’60s soul music, one of the most popular forms of dance club music in the Bay Area. These are four-hour blocks of DJ’d club nights featuring exclusively African American musicians, yet less than one percent of the average Soul Night club-goers are African American. There’s blame lying in so many places for such phenomena, across so many lines, ethnic, economic. Medicine for Melancholy is a small movie. It gets at some of that. But man, there’s a discussion to be had that goes so much deeper.

SF360: Are the actors professional or non-pro? Did you allow them or encourage them to improvise?

Jenkins: The actors are non-professional professionals, by which I mean they want to be professionals but have few credits. Tracey Heggins, who plays Jo’, is an aspiring actress chasing the dream. She wants to be a Hollywood actress in the traditional sense. Her performance is very contained and straightforward, reflecting the character’s ‘together’ mental state. Wyatt Cenac, who plays Micah, is a stand-up comedian. We found both in LA after a very unfruitful try at finding African American actors local to the Bay Area (the ironies continue to mount). The movie sticks to the script for the most part, though I did encourage them to improvise. Wyatt, who’d never done any acting that wasn’t sketch or improv comedy, took to the invitation and ran with it. Just about every place in the script I wrote a joke, he took it a step farther, embellishing whatever comedic elements I gave him. Having screened the film a few times now, the line between my jokes and his extensions of them has become smoothly delineated. An audience will loosen with laughter at a moderately funny bit I’ve written, and then Wyatt will fluidly massage them into all-out hysterics with an improvised addition. He’s a brilliant performer. His handling of the dramatic material is every bit as effective.

SF360: How did you decide to shoot in black-and-white? The look reminded me of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, although the films are quite dissimilar. Would you cite him as an influence? I liked the bits of red that creep in, without being heavy-handed or overly symbolic or artsy. What was your inspiration there?

Jenkins: You know, I saw Killer of Sheep at the Castro this past year, but I can’t say Burnett was an influence. Clair Denis and her film Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) were the initial inspiration. Ms. Denis is by far my favorite filmmaker. I also love Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and Lucretia Martel (The Holy Girl). Your influences don’t necessarily dictate your aesthetic, so I’m fine with the fact this film bares little resemblance to those women’s work, but there you have it. … We arrived at the final black and white, tinted look through a series of camera tests in many of the locations we actually ended up shooting. In her review, critic Karina Longworth posited that the film was 93 percent desaturated to reflect the city’s 7 percent African American population, an extraordinary assessment to make by eye! The truth is, the desaturation fluctuates depending on the character’s interactions, but for the most part, the film is indeed 93 percent desaturated! Now, as much as we’d like to, we can’t take credit for consciously tinting the film with those stats in mind. Yet in the end, the synergy of the ideas we were attempting and the reality they reflect amounted to an extraordinary coincidence that enriches the movie.

SF360: Let’s end on a light note: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Jenkins: That’s easy: James Laxton. He’s a man, a human, a craftsman, an artist, much more than a piece of gear. But wow, what a man, what an artist. It’s been a pleasure working with him across my short films and this first feature. There’s a spirit between us that just seeps into the work. I’d hate to make a film without it.

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