"How do you define yourself?" It's not until its third act that Medicine for Melancholy's lead male character explicitly asks the question that's at this film's heart. Throughout its near-90-minute running time, writer-director Barry Jenkins' tender, smart, soulful movie gracefully places the emphasizing weight of inflection on each word in the query, then subtly shifts that weight so that the answer being sought (what black is; what black ain't) is itself a morphing, complicated thing. That's fitting for a film that is pointedly and poetically about race, gentrification, and the emotional temperature of the modern African-American — or at least one subset of that demographic. When Micah (The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac), said male lead, states that his definition of self is partly predicated on how the world sees and treats him, 'Jo (Tracey Heggins), the female lead and also black, fires back an exasperated, "Who gives a shit what society thinks?"
Micah, whose jeans neither hug his nuts nor sag off his ass, is a doe-eyed, seemingly laid-back San Francisco native who installs aquariums for a living. (He looks like a lost member of Pharcyde.) The soothing quality of those burbling tanks is reflected somehow in his core personality, but Micah also seethes about the fact that his hometown is rapidly and not incidentally being emptied of black folks. When he and 'Jo — initially aloof, charming when thawed — awaken in the same bed after a friend's party, neither knowing the other's name, she's determined to do her walk of shame. Micah is too smitten, though, to just let her get away. The rest of the film — gorgeously shot in black and white by James Laxton — follows as the duo spends the day (and another night) peeling back the layers in conversations that cover interracial relationships, striking the balance between what you do and how you pay the bills and the role of "urban planning" in pushing poor and black folk out of San Francisco. "Imagine the Lower Haight," Micah says, recalling his childhood, "filled with nothing but black folk and white artists." The lament will resonate from San Francisco to D.C., Los Angeles to Harlem, as enclaves that were once hubs of black American life are drained of their blackness.
The script's politics sound didactic in the listing, and they're moving in the execution. Jenkins's dialogue is crisp and witty, sounding and flowing the way real people speak. But it's also shrewdly nuanced. When the duo banters on about why Black History Month is February, Micah takes the familiar position that it's because February is the shortest month of the year. 'Jo's rebuttal, parlayed in the coolest of tones, not only counters with hard facts but also suggests a class schism between the two that plays out in ways small (wine storage) and large (the neighborhoods they live in). Part of the film's powerful emotion, though, lies in the stretches of silence between characters, when it's just the ambient noise — the trickling of a park waterfall; the sound of traffic floating up into an open apartment window — while Laxton's camera pulls in tight on a face or hangs tough as the couple walks down the sidewalk. Jenkins has joked in interviews that the film is black mumblecore, and it is, but with an intensity of purpose often lacking in that movement.
There are two other major characters in the film: the city of San Francisco and the film's indie rock soundtrack. Jenkins has cited the great French filmmaker Claire Denis as one of his influences, and it shows in the way he incorporates his intoxicating landscape into the narrative and into his characters' psyches, showing the connection between identity and geography. In contemporary pop culture, that connection is frequently drawn in rap. The music in Medicine, however, is indie rock, and that isn't accidental. At one point, Micah delineates the isolation he feels by breaking down the 7 percent of black folks left in San Francisco into those who are into "punk, folk, or whatever you don't see on BET." In a drunken rant, he fumes that "everything about being indie is tied to not being black." His love of indie music, however, is not a desire to escape or deny blackness: Immersion in a scene whose default setting is "white" is paradoxically rooted in his hunger to embody and live a more complex, dynamic blackness than that which pop barons market. The irony crushes him.