Memorializing Melancholy - A Retrospective on the Beginning of Barry Jenkins' Trilogy of Black Masculine Intimacy

When the credits rolled on Barry Jenkin’s 2009 feature film debut, Medicine for Melancholy, I was beside myself with wonder. I was fifteen years old and, to that point, knew nothing of Black independent cinema. This was eight years prior to me discovering the various languages of Black auteur cinema from voices such as Bill Gunn, Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Marlon Riggs, Charles Burnett, Cheryl Dunye, Haile Gerima and Debbie Tucker Green. Nine years before I dedicated two years scholastically investigating the Black body, on film, through space and time, culminating in a graduate thesis assignment on Director Steve McQueen’s philosophy of memorializing Black bodies in pleasure and pain. By 2009 I knew I loved Sidney Poitier, due to a learned generational appreciation for his overwhelming, almost Godly, Black masculine impression on my grandfather’s early adulthood and subsequently my mother’s and then my own. I recognized Friday as a revolutionary comedic soiree and Boyz in the Hood as a modern Shakespearean tragedy, but that was the extent of my consumption of Black cinema. Upon my first viewing, of Medicine for Melancholy, I was enthralled by the usage of grayscale, the intimate framing, the dry comedic interplay, and Black cultural diatribe, between Wyatt Cenac’s (The Daily Show) Micah and Tracey Heggin’s (Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn-Part 1) Jo’, along with the passive notes of black pain burgeoning beneath the surface of this meditation on punk culture, blackness and gentrification in San Francisco. But what encapsulated me most was the titular male lead, Micah, and how I identified my own fears, rage and contradictions in this fictitious impression of the lived experience of a Black man whereas before, within the form, I knew Black men to be cool, dashing, hypervigilant, sexual and a-sexual. All that I was not and what I was I never fathomed I’d witness on screen.

            Jenkins’ latest feature, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, concludes what can be considered a Trilogy of Black Masculine Intimacies. All three of Jenkins’ features assume a position about intimacy, more specifically a position about the shared romantic, albeit often warped, intimacies of Black men. The dimensions by which Jenkins utilizes, filmically, to illustrate the complexities of contemporary lived Black Male experience is often oxymoronic in styling. We’ll call his stylings epic subtlety, or the use of technique which synthesizes everyday affairs with method often afforded to the Epic i.e, character’s walking alongside a public transit line accompanied by verbose orchestral arrangements. Medicine for Melancholy, the first of the trilogy, reveals the disillusionment associated with racial trauma and fantasy often underlined in the insecurities of toxic black masculinity, in the face of interracial relationships. While Jenkins’ signature has become the intense close up, it is with Medicine for Melancholy that his fixation with sound, or lack thereof, as a technique of documenting quiet rage, duress and reverie evolved. The shared experiences of Micah, a militant fish tank salesman, and Jo’, a racially laissez faire art curator, are temporary. Jo’ and Micah, following a random sexual encounter, agree to a day of adventure, sex and Black millennial musings, despite Jo’ being in a relationship with a White male museum curator who is, conveniently, out of town during their often dream-like escapades. One of the more noted sequences of the film is a two minute and forty second montage of Jo’ and Micah discovering the fantasticism of a carousel. The sequence is a masterclass in epic subtlety as Dickon Hinchliffe’s arrangement, Le Rallye, swells, Micah and Jo’ are encapsulated in a homage to innocence. The two find pleasure in the cyclical rotations of the carousel as though the mechanical steeds were transporting them to a non-consequential wonderland of jovial romances.  All is veiled beneath the fancifully lush composition until both the arrangement, and the carousel, steadily conclude and both protagonists are summoned to circumstance and the resonance of the city, once again, become the soundscape of their, and our, reality. As a study of relational fantasy, the undercutting of pleasure is so disruptive, despite how little is actually occurring on screen, due to how the composition and character movements meld into one another. Their bodies ascending and descending, matching the shifting rhythms of the melody. As cinema, it’s a grand display of motion, and sound, which makes its finale so unsettling as Micah, Jo’ and the audience must reckon with the inevitability of Jo’s words prior to the sequence, “this is just a one-night stand”. On the other end of the auditory spectrum, as Jo’ and Micah visit the Museum of the African Diaspora, silence almost warps relational racial intimacies, as the two walk into an exhibit where they are surrounded by the commanding voice of a narrator reciting the words of a former enslaved Africans horrifying journeying through the Middle Passage. Jenkins, and his soon-to-be long-time cinematographer, James Laxton, frames the character’s tightly. Almost squeezing them into the four quadrants of the image. They are seemingly devoured in darkness and their silhouettes, accentuating their distinctively black profiles, are the only reminders of their form. It is as though Jenkins was exposing the forced intimacies of blackness, especially under the brutalities of memory and, more specifically, the memory of slavery. That as post-slavery subjects, our mimicry of individuality is made moot by that which binds all children of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We are almost bound in darkness, in each other’s darkness seemingly. But despite these, and other, moments of shared experience, their affair draws to a close with a reminder that the emotions that they’ve occupied, relationally, were temporary and this culminates in the concluding conflict of the film where an inebriated Micah performs a sermon on interracial love and the “losing” of Black women to White men. Towards the middle of his ranting, Micah argues to a concerned Jo’ that, “People call it interracial dating, but it’s always one of us hanging on to one of them.” Later he begs the question, “Why you gotta date some white dude?” Jo’ responds with her own inquiry, “What do you want from me? You think just because I’m black and you’re black that we should just be together?” Whereas before Jenkins' utilizes external sound to color in the subtext of their emotions, he bears the onus of emotive declaration, solely, on their own voices. Their vocal range, despite conversational context, has been fairly muted prior to this altercation. The two speak softly and with a humorous cordiality which punctuates the fantasy of their romance. But, in conflict, their voices bellow. The sounds of vehicles passing them seem to wean as they encroach, as though cautious of interruption. And despite Jo’s competing testament, the pitch of Micah’s voice indicates how much of himself he is fighting for. The racial fantasies drawn between the two, during their brief affair are eroded by the conditions of their agreement to pleasure, that being pleasure for a solitary moment. Whatever securities Micah has blanketed himself in are being stripped away, layer by layer, as he drunkenly extends his hands to Jo’ in a final appeal to kinship. But all that remains, of her and the tethers to fantasy, is her back and the almost haunting silence within the spaces of the, now seemingly contemptuous and roaring, passing vehicles. The sequence, and film, end with the two returning to Micah’s home, embracing in a moment which reads almost as racial catharsis and Jo’ leaving the next morning as Micah slumbers unaware of whether, or not, he’ll lay eyes upon Jo’, again, following their affair.

            Medicine for Melancholy introduced the world of cinema to a Black man who was vulnerable despite his efforts of crafting an impenetrable gendered exterior. Despite his yearnings of being a warrior of Black masculine idealism, he was affected by whiteness. He had, as we learn early in the film, attained a romantic trauma from a White partner, previous, and this informed his rage. For Micah, both the Gentrification of San Francisco and Jo’s relationship, with a White man, triggered his paranoia of being devoured by the pain of loss, associated with whiteness, that he wore following the conclusion of a failed interracial romance. This translated to an expression of need. A need to secure his blackness in the connection with a Black woman, despite the impending tragedy of their relational conditions. That tragedy being that it was never to endure, despite his plea and the fantasy of a purity of homogeneously racial intimacies born from a few moments of touch and laughter. The magic is in how Jenkin’s achieves such posturing of confrontational racial cognitions within the frame. With technique often associated with art film motifs of names like Terrence Malick and Andrzej Zulawski, Jenkin’s achieves an epic subtlety understated within what is heard, doubly affecting, maturing and morphing what is seen.

This was the first chapter in Barry Jenkins scrutiny of Black masculinity, on screen, and the search for security in intimacy. A security in the touch of another. The second chapter being the emotional odyssey into the distorted vision of self in blackness and in manhood that is Moonlight (2016). A film that observes a black boy in search, not of fantasy, but of an authenticity in love that most black boys are denied, regardless of their orientation. And the final chapter of his saga, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018),we bear witness to the cost of established intimacies against system’s dedicated to penetrating any inkling of humanity Black folk, and specifically Black men, hold to in the darkest of night.

Though Jenkin’s, in 2019, may be considered a masterful technician in Black auteur filmmaking, Medicine for Melancholy, a microscopic dramedy and love letter to being a Black San Franciscan in pre-Obama America would prove to be the bones of a cinematic trilogy which would see the skin I’m in, made art, when with the same lens I’ve known only a fun house mirrored reflection.