Q+A: Medicine For Melancholy’s Barry Jenkins

February 26, 2009

Barry Jenkins wrote Medicine For Melancholy in a coffee shop. Then they filmed the movie over two weeks. Because that is what happens when you make a movie and work on the floor at Banana Republic at the same time. Your movie, probably, is also going to be mostly about you. Write what you know, you know? In that spirit, the film is about the night after a one night stand between two people. Set against gentrifying San Francisco, Micah and Jo — both black, both "indie" — are trying to figure out how to move in a world that is predefining, narrow and not particularly romantic. Fortunately they have MySpace and weed to help them out. We spoke with Jenkins, who also directed the film, read our Q+A after the jump.

I saw the movie when you were here in New York a couple of weeks ago and after, this kid asked you a whole host of questions and you said to him, “I just made a movie that was like a self-portrait, an autobiography and I really can’t answer any of your questions because it’s like talking about yourself instead of your movie.” Can there be a distinction between you and Medicine for Melancholy?

Ugh, yeah I hope there is, I think especially the person I am now as opposed to the person that I was when I was going through things that are in the movie. It’s two very different people. The movie is very personal and there are all these things that are being said that are not necessarily heavy, but they’re serious issues. And so it’s natural to make the jump from the film to the filmmaker.

Has it been weird to try to exist outside of that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah it’s terribly weird. We live in the age of social networking and have a Facebook profile, or have a MySpace profile, and people constantly add me as a Facebook friend. And they send me messages I can tell are all predicated on the experience of seeing the film. It’s almost like I’m not a stranger. It’s like they know me because they’ve seen this movie but the movie and I are a whole different thing. So yeah it’s very strange but I mean, shit, I can’t complain. I would have been begging to have this situation you know a year and a half ago when I hadn’t made a film. I didn’t know if I could have made a movie.

Now that you’ve been traveling with the film for a year, do you feel like there are parallels to it that exist in other cities?

I think the identity things, the struggle that Micah is going through, I think that’s universal. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been to Vienna, been to London, Buenos Aires, fucking France, Toronto, and all over this country, too. I remember we went to Boston and I was thinking, Boston, no one is going to relate to this movie at all. And this woman stood up in the Q and A, and said, You know, your movie really reminded me a lot of Boston, have you taken the red line? I said no, and she was like, You should take the red line from one end all the way to the other end and you’ll basically have the story that Micah is complaining about right here in Boston. I did some research on it, and there was this thing where there was a redevelopment plan in Boston to displace these Puerto Rican enclaves in the city and they fought back basically defeated these new zoning laws. And she was right, it was a story that was very relevant to what Micah was talking about in relation to San Francisco.

So how much of this story is about being black and how much of it is just about being a minority?

Obviously it has a hell of a lot to do with being black. And its weird, there’s been so many reviews of the film now that I’m picking things up from people’s reviews. Ernest Hardy in the Village Voice, he said that the complexity, the conundrum for the character Micah, is that in trying to define a more dynamic definition of what it means to be black, he has to gravitate to these things that he feels are more stereotypically white—like being in the indie scene—that will make him a more dynamic African-American. But instead he can’t help but feel that it’s pulling him away from being black. For Micah, I think the struggle is to figure out how to recontextualize these arguments he’s having. San Francisco is not forcing these people out of the city because they are black, it’s forcing them out because they are poor.

Do you think Micah even realizes that his struggle is part of a much larger one?

No, no, no, he does not. I think the biggest thing in the movie is he doesn’t realize his role in the whole cycle of it. The apartment he’s living in is an apartment that some minority family probably once stayed in when the rent was $500 bucks but now he pays $1250 for this tiny studio. I think we’re all part of this horrific puzzle or change that’s going on in San Francisco. There’s a sequence where the characters are just walking and talking—or walking and not talking—and they walk out of the museum, they walk by the waterfall, the carousel… They are walking through this thing you call the Moscone Center, this huge convention center underground. But before that place was the Moscone Center, there were all these huge tenement buildings, where all these old senior citizens lives, these old guys who were still going, would come downstairs and play chess. And that whole area got razed. They built MOMA, and the Museum of African Diaspora, which the two characters go to, which is a very small part of a much bigger building. They built the St. Regis Hotel where roo are $500 a night and they built Yerba Buena Gardens, where that fountain is, and they built the little bridge and the carousel. And beneath it all, are these huge cavernous convention centers where they actually make money to keep businesses coming to the city. And I feel like the two characters, as they’re walking, they never once realize the history they are walking over, they never really get it, they never really see the role they are playing in just enjoying these new beautiful places, they never really witnessing or aware of the history they are walking over. And I think that’s what San Francisco really is, its this place where they just pave over all these different levels of history, and redevelopment, and progress, but I think it’s a different sort of progress that San Francisco was once known for.

That’s super depressing.

It kind of is man, it kind of is. I was going to try to rebut you, but it kind of is.

Is there a solution for Micah?

He needs to really be comfortable being with himself. You can’t say its bad for him that he feels like he has to be with this black woman, its his life, its his choice, but he needs to be okay with who he is if he really does believe he has to be with a black woman. Or he has to be okay with who he is if he feels like he has to be with a white woman. Either way, he has to be comfortable with himself and be honest with the people he’s dealing with.

If at the end of this time with Jo he was left with that feeling that he has to be in a relationship with a black woman, to you, as the writer of this film, is that an okay resolution for him to get to?

No, its not. I would definitely lead more towards where Jo is or where Jo is going. I think race is a limiter. I think it has its uses, there’s nothing wrong with common experience, the bond and the things you can collectively learn as a community from that collective experience but I think race is just another thing that separates us and I’m all about bringing people together.

Did you see the movie Rachel Getting Married?

I did, actually

In that film, it's Tunde from TV On the Radio who gets mentioned in your movie…

That’s a joke, by the way. Maybe only 10% of the screenings people laugh, but it’s meant to be a joke.

It’s just weird to see Tunde from the movie getting married to a white woman in an entire film that has no mention of race.

None whatsoever. The whole movie is super multi-culti and there’s no mention of it all. It’s very subversive. It’s great.

You don’t think it’s devoid of it at all?

I had friends that didn’t like the movie for that very reason. But I feel like at the very least, we don’t see that film where we have that union of black and white and it’s not an issue. It’s so easy to make it an issue. I admire it, it seemed authentic. It seemed like those two people are getting married and these two families are coming together. I think maybe if there’s any flaw in the film, it’s so utopian in that respect that it isn’t an issue at all. And it’s a wedding, there’s always issues at weddings, and it’s not an issue at all. I’ll tell you a story about that movie. I was watching Let the Right One In, the vampire film, I was watching it and Rachel Getting Married was playing in the theatre right next door, and the part where Tunde serenaded her during the wedding was playing over the moment when these two kids in Let the Right One In, were having their meet cute. It was perfect, man.

Q+A: Medicine For Melancholy’s Barry Jenkins