Brow Beat

How Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy Laid the Groundwork for His Gorgeous, Haunting Moonlight

Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac in Medicine for Melancholy.
Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac in Medicine for Melancholy.

Still from the trailer

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the gorgeous, heartbreaking coming-of-age story set in an impoverished, predominantly black Miami neighborhood, has received glowing reviews and is widely considered to be a serious contender in this year’s Oscar season. Just last week, the Gotham Awards announced that it had won a special jury award for outstanding ensemble, along with nominations for Best Feature and Best Screenplay, while New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote a review headlined Moonlight: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?” Such praise is deserved—the film is ambitious in its scope (filmed in three acts, three different actors play each of the main male protagonists), mesmerizing in its style, and wonderfully specific in its content, with a main character and a setting that feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen on screen. If you haven’t already, you should absolutely go see this film.

But first (or after, if you’ve been so lucky): Watch Jenkins’ debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a quiet, contemplative indie centered around the brief relationship between two black twentysomethings, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins). When it was released theatrically in 2009, it slipped largely under the radar of most moviegoers, but, as a recent Indiewire profile points out, it established Jenkins as a new and exciting voice, and inspired other young, aspiring, black filmmakers, such as Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) to keep plugging away at their craft. And now, in the wake of Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy feels even more like a revelation—the not-so-subtle hint of a talented filmmaker with a lot to say.

In premise, the two films couldn’t be more different. Moonlight takes place over a span of several years, as a young black boy struggles with self-discovery while raised in a neglectful home and subjected to bullying from his peers. In Medicine for Melancholy, hipsters Micah and Jo’ awaken the next day following a one-night stand and over the course of the next 24 hours wander San Francisco discussing everything from housing discrimination to interracial dating. Aesthetically, the two diverge significantly as well. Though they share the same director and cinematographer (longtime Jenkins collaborator James Laxton), Medicine exists in a sepia-toned haze, while the humid cityscapes of Moonlight remain vibrant and colorful even in nighttime scenes.

But look deeper, and Medicine shares strands of DNA with its successor—particularly the way in which it taps into its characters’ needs and desires to connect with another person, to feel. At first, it’s Micah who attempts to engage with Jo’ the morning after their drunken tryst—as they leave the party host’s home, he awkwardly attempts to strike up a conversation with Jo’, who is more than ready to forget that anything ever happened between the two of them. For some time, Micah’s actions seem futile in the face of Jo’s half-hearted, short answers in the coffee shop where they grab a hangover breakfast and then in the cab ride back to their respective places. Eventually, Jo’ begins to open up more as she becomes intrigued by him, a guy who likes to talk (and talk) about what it means to be black and living in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. These are two people who, like the main character of Moonlight, seem incredibly lonely, and, in their own ways, they’re all trying to find a way not to be so lonely anymore. Micah’s naturally chatty nature reveals his disappointment in the world around him, while Jo’s initially standoffish nature melts away to reveal a woman who, at least for a day, wants to experience something beyond the mundane aspects of her everyday life with her out-of-town-for-work boyfriend.

Even as they grow more comfortable around each other, Medicine never forgets that these two are still relative strangers in this daylong dalliance—and the two characters find themselves doing a dance of push and pull, sometimes landing on the same wavelength but just as often not. There are long periods of quiet and intimacy that weave in and out between their banter, in montages of unbridled happiness on a merry-go-round or in an indie-rock bar. But there’s also unease and confrontation, particularly when the conversation lands on self-identity and perceptions of blackness. Their connection is tenuous.

In Moonlight, we see that same willingness on the part of Jenkins to let characters sit and live in moments of uncertainty and tension. At the end of the first act, the preteen protagnoist asks drug dealer Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, the two stable adult figures in his life who have taken him under their wing, a series of pointed questions about how people see him. “What’s a faggot? Am I a faggot?” he wonders, having learned the word from his bullies. As Juan and Teresa address his concerns, their discomfort with the conversation is conveyed in beats of silence, concerned glances. After being so timid and silent for the first part of the film, he is finally attempting to connect with those he thinks he can trust, and Juan and Teresa are trying to do the best they can to be to him what he needs—a guiding, loving presence.

In our list of the 50 greatest black films from earlier this year, my colleague Dan Kois highlighted the power of Medicine for Melancholy’s debate over “the role of black men and women in a city where people of color are being erased, and an indie subculture that respects blackness without actually finding any place for it in its ranks.” Moonlight is also concerned with this, in a way—Jenkins has talked extensively about wanting to shine a light on an oft-ignored aspect of his hometown of Miami (the impoverished, predominantly black neighborhoods like Liberty City) and portray an underseen example of black manhood. And while it’s his latest film that may finally make Jenkins a household name, Medicine for Melancholy prepared him for this moment.