Before Moonlight, There Was Medicine For Melancholy

A look back at director Barry Jenkins’s first remarkable feature film

After rave reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, the hotly anticipated film Moonlight drops in theaters this weekend. Moonlight is an adaptation of a triptych story from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney about the queer coming-of-age of a black boy in Miami, and if the story originated in the nascent stages of McCraney’s now MacArthur-approved career, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Moonlight’s production is that the movie is only the second feature made by its director, Barry Jenkins. However, for fans of the new movie looking back at Jenkins’s first film, Medicine for Melancholy, the signs of Jenkins’s artistry were visible from the start.

Medicine for Melancholy is a 2008 romantic drama starring Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins that Jenkins made on a budget he once described as “less than the cost of your car.” The film follows the aftermath of a one-night stand between Micah and Joanne, two independent black twentysomethings in San Francisco. Micah is just out of a relationship with a white woman, while Joanne is still seeing a white man, and their perspectives on being black in a majority white city color their interactions as they try to get to know each other after their initial encounter. Micah comes on strong both emotionally and politically, but the movie itself is a tougher nut to crack. Jenkins’s film sympathizes with both characters, observing Micah’s inability to appreciate the moment and the particularities of Joanne’s life even as it contemplates museums devoted to the African diaspora and social issues like gentrification and rent control.

In a recent interview with white, female filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, whose latest film Certain Women is playing in many of the same independent theaters and festivals as the ones that will play Jenkins’s Moonlight, she talked about teaching young filmmakers to build their stories from their own sense of anger. (MTV News also spoke with Reichardt about her new film.) Anger isn’t the most obvious tone to pull out of Medicine for Melancholy, but it goes a long way in explaining how a film made with such modest means could still feel wholly purposeful where so many similar first-time features are slack.

For as much as the visual aesthetic of Medicine for Melancholy is soft-focused and muted, the characters themselves are consumed by frustrations, especially Micah, who can’t move past the anger of being unable to find a community in a city where less than 7 percent of the population is black. In the scene of spectacular self-sabotage that marks the film’s climax, Micah lashes out at Jo after a punk show, demanding to know why she’s dating a white guy, pushing for her to explain to him why it’s so hard to be black and “indie” without white people around to hang on to when you’re feeling lonely. Jo leaves Micah on the curb with little more than his entitlement to keep him warm, but she returns for one last lonely fling before presumably biking away from his apartment for the last time. If the movie entirely identified with either protagonist maybe there would be an easier solution, a right or wrong to transpose onto their encounter, but instead Jenkins’s movie is a testament to the inevitability of romantic waste. In the world according to Jenkins, as much as Micah and Jo are affected by the social climate of the city around them, politics can only describe the connections we make — awareness isn’t enough to make for a happy ending.

When Barry Jenkins released Medicine for Melancholy, Beyoncé was playing Sasha Fierce, Donald Glover was writing jokes behind the scenes on 30 Rock, and Issa Rae had only just settled on her stage name. Neither Ava DuVernay nor Terence Nance had started making feature films, and Richard Ayoade was still best-known for acting on The IT Crowd. Kid Cudi might’ve released “Day ‘N’ Nite,” but Chance The Rapper was still just a freshman in detention. Indie blackness as a genre wasn’t nonexistent in 2008 but it was disconnected, isolated in pockets, ignored by labels and studios and executives, dependent on distribution from outsider groups designed to highlight voices that didn’t fit into what was an overwhelmingly white cultural dominance. In 2008, black and indie got Barry Jenkins noticed on the festival circuit, and he was able to take the film from the San Francisco Film Festival to Toronto and SXSW. In 2016, black and indie wins Grammys and Emmys, and Barry Jenkins, his films, his stars, and his collaborators are being written up as Oscar contenders. Not everything in the world is better, not every artist gets their fair shake, not every great film from a great black filmmaker finds its audience, but at least for Jenkins, what a difference eight years makes.