Just saw Medicine for Melancholy, the newish film by Barry Jenkins. Some are calling him "the new Spike Lee," as if there can only be one black man in film. He is nothing like Spike Lee. This film is quiet and leads you nowhere. It is completely inconclusive. And it occupies the space of awkward liminality, rather than the nervous threshold that made films like Do The Right Thing and Bamboozled so powerful. But that's ok... you don't have to be Spike Lee to be a black person making movies people want to see. And Medicine is worth seeing.
It is hard to give a synopsis for this film because as many narratives as it incorporates, it is not really about anything. Two 20-something black hipsters wake up the morning after a house party in San Francisco. It is awkward - especially since the girl has a boyfriend who happens to be out of town - but the boy is persistent, and they end up spending the next 24 hours together. It turns into one of those amazing day-long dates with someone you've never met before where everything normal becomes new and utterly magical. This is one story. Another story of the film is that they are living in San Francisco, a city like many cities: gentrification issues run deep and San Francisco's PR has had an erasing effect on the memory of the place. Neighborhoods (like Bayview) that became relocation centers after the first wave of gentrification somewhere else (like Fillmore) in the city are now being gentrified themselves. The film features an actual housing justice meeting where a lot of these issues in relation to the future of the city and the potential loss of rent control are laid out in plain language. A third story that appears in Medicine is the story of being young and black and "indy" - a scene that the main character claims is all about being white. As Micah (the guy) and Jo (the girl) go through their day this issue comes up over and over again. Jo is sort of post-race. She wants Micah to see himself as a human and she doesn't want to have to feel guilty that her boyfriend is white. Micah on the other hand is in a love-hate relationship with the city he was born in and, like many non-white SF natives that I've met since moving here, can not shake the feeling that his claim on the place is rapidly being pulled out from under him, and that he and the other black indy folk might be doing most of the pulling. He talks about going to a show and out of three hundred people only seeing one other black face - that has probably "got their arm around somebody white."
Walking out of that theatre tonight I realized I had just experienced what it must feel like to be white and heterosexual and upper middle class and a filmgoer. You see yourself reflected on the screen. Not in a campy way, not in a way where you understand this reflection of you is only partial and is being used to talk about something not-you. It's just people like you who happen to have a camera filming them. It's like... you get the jokes. This isn't a film about gentrification and it's not a film about being black. If anything, it's a kind of meandering first date movie where no one gets the girl in the end. But everything about the space - from the scene at the Knockout to the opening views of Noe Valley - and the people - riding fixies downtown to the Museum of the African Diaspora or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (which is also a neighborhood known for it's Redevelopment slum clearance, something which, interestingly, goes unmentioned in the film) - was a story that I can understand. For perhaps the first time in my life I went to a movie and felt myself on the other end of the gaze. That is, the one being watched and not the watcher. Whenever Laura Mulvey and her peons would talk about scopophilia and the pleasure of watching an "other," I always knew that something didn't hold completely true for me there. Either the characters on the screen were half-people, failed representations and unrealized idealizations, or they were simulacra of a dominant society I have never been a part of - and so a sort of "other" to my otherness. But this time, with Medicine, there was no other. It's as if being young and black and strange and sort of yuppie-ish and melancholic were normal; it's as if these things that are me were things worth watching, not for the sake of discovering something else (like housing injustice in the Bay), but with the understanding that all those something elses are part of this normalized existence.