Moonlight director Barry Jenkins' first feature film Medicine for Melancholy is deeply rooted in the dawn of the Obama era. Debuting at South by Southwest in 2008 with a wider release the following year, the movie neatly includes what I now consider artifacts from the late aughts. Those hideous tight caps with a tiny bill. A street vendor offering SoBe. Velcro Converses. Nylon messenger bags. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone blaring in the background. I even gasped when I saw Myspace's 2008 interface, which plays a pivotal plot point in the film.
Of course, the movie doesn't set out to capture the cultural milieu of that very specific era. Jenkins made the film for a meager $15,000 (less than the cost of your car, he says) and rarely had permits to shoot around San Francisco, the city he was trying to document. The casual junk of young, urban, relatively well off Black San Franciscans seeped in because it had to. But it reflects the conversations and people Medicine for Melancholy is so deeply interested in.
Shot in MacBook Photobooth-like sepia tones, the film follows Micah (Wyatt Cenac), a fish tank salesman with a chip on his shoulder, and Jo (Tracey Heggins in what is unfortunately her only major role so far), a screen printer dating a white curator. They fuck after meeting at a party, but what should be a one-night stand turns into a whole day spent together, loping around a San Francisco that's in the midst of a deep economic and cultural change.
Throughout the day they dissect interracial dating, what it means to be Black in "indie" culture, gentrification, the best samples of Sylvia Striplin. The movie is appropriately twee in a very West Coast way. Jo wears a t-shirt she made with Barbara Loden's last name blazed across the front. Micah takes her on a thinking-man's date to the Museum of the African Diaspora. It's like Before Sunrise with a weightier conscious but just as much charm.
The two characters represent a tension present in the director's mind when he initially conceived the film. Fresh out of his first interracial relationship, Jenkins wanted to address issues that were "swirling around" in his head post-breakup. Thus, Jo and Micah are Jenkins' two halves talking to one another.
Micah stridently identifies as Black before everything else. Jo believes we're all human. Micah rails against the lack of Black people in the "indie" scene and his struggle to fit in. Jo rolls her eyes and doesn't understand Micah's passions. It reminds me of debates that our country fitfully had when a half-Black senator from Illinois ran for president. While the film's thoughts about Blackness seem dichotomous from a 2020 vantage point, for the indie filmmaking world in the late aughts, Jo and Micah represented a perspective the scene had yet to voice.
A whole generation of Black directors—Justin Simien, Lena Waithe, Terence Nance—were spurred into action after seeing Jo and Micah spar then kiss all around San Francisco. "I had never seen anything depicting that world, that pocket of Black life," said Nance, who has made some of the most original films and TV shows of the last decade. And so Medicine for Melancholy proved itself to be a germinal film for the Black filmmakers who dominated the 2010s.
This aughties sensibility is also reflected in San Francisco, which acts as the third character in the film. At this point, the city had yet to become completely synonymous with "tech bro" or "Google." However, issues of economic and racial inequality—diligently explored by Micah and Jo—abound throughout the film. At one point, the spontaneous couple stumbles upon an affordable housing meeting.
"There's this sense in this town that we are becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor," says one activist. Others talk about the importance of rent control and the widespread gentrification of the city. One points out how now seems better than during the Dot Com boom when people rented out closets for "$600 to $800." If only they knew what the next decade would bring. But the importance of Medicine for Melancholy—and the brief 24-hour relationship between Micah and Jo—is that it manages to capture this delicate late 2000s portrait of a city on the brink of a decade of immense transformation.