I'm a little late on my review of Medicine for Melancholy, which I saw a few weeks ago at the Waverly IFC Center. I had some strong reactions, some of which were totally opposite to most of the reviews I've seen, even those by trusted astute writer friends like Ernest Hardy and Elisha Miranda.
I was excited to see the movie, a 24-hour romance between two Afro-bohos in my former home of San Francisco. There were superficial elements that reminded me of She's Gotta Have It (more on that movie, which I caught again recently after many many years, in a future post) -- the monochromatic palette, the quirky romance, the space for artsy Blackness to just breathe. But like most shorthand, the comparison doesn't hold too far.
First, the good: the sense of place, and the romance of place, comes through clearly. San Francisco is easy to fall for, the pretty girl at the party to whom everyone gravitates. But the beauty in the movie isn't just the usual postcard vistas, it's more the sweet alchemy of low-rise housing + hills that makes you feel apart and in nature in Potrero Hill, Dolores Park, the Palace of Fine Arts.
The movie pays careful attention to where people live, what they're likely to cross rolling from the Marina to the Tenderloin, the intimate little corners of the not-so-new-anymore Yerba Buena Arts Center, the industria-era nostalgia of the Britex Fabrics sign. I have a personal map of my own favorite Mission District signs: El Capitan (torn down), 500 Club (my beacon home biking down from the Haight), Thrift Town (17 Reasons Why).
Place is nostalgia, for a San Francisco that was less white, less uniformly rich. The figure we get from Micah (Wyatt Cenac, who turns in a great performance, tensed up in his laid-back-ness, always on the verge of breaking his Buster Keaton demeanor to laugh or rage) is 7% African-American population, with the stronghold being Bayview-Hunter Point -- the "redevelopment" of the Fillmore as the city's Black displacement original sin. All true, all a tragedy -- one that fits in nicely as evidence of The Plan (go 31:45 in for the relevant segment) -- but not the whole story.
As Micah and his paramour Jo wander the city and talktalktalk about race, romance and redevelopment, they pass by an open storefront where a group of people is discussing gentrification. I think these are played by real-life housing activists. What I noticed is that everyone talking about displacement from San Francisco to the East Bay and further inland was white. Huh?
The most intense displacement of the past decade has been in my former neighborhood of the Mission and like neighborhoods, traditionally Latino nabes. The Latino population of SF has remained more or less steady since 1990 (14% of the city even as total population has gone up and down). But those who remain are poorer and more marginalized. How do you talk about gentrification in San Francisco and have it be strictly a Black-white conversation?
And for that matter, how do you talk about "alternative culture" -- one of the other subjects of contention for our blipster protagonists -- and yet again frame it strictly in terms of Black-white? At one point, the couple hits a "Soul Night" in a club I could not place (Elbo Room?) where, retro-Daptones style, most of the revelers are figured as white.
But I spotted a few Chicano-Filipino-looking people in there. The notion that "alternative" only means "white" is a false one, at least to my memory of 1990s SF. Or maybe the polyracial omnisexual bohemia of my memories only exists in LA now.
And I haven't even talked about the straw-woman that is Jo, with her opaque life, contrarian non-politics and fuzzy personality. All we can gather about her is that she is the kept woman of a globe-trotting art dealer/curator. Her "creative side" and politics is restricted to making t-shirts sporting the names of female filmmakers. Um, yeah.
Micah's race warrior position can be compelling even against a tougher interlocutor than the one he gets. I couldn't figure out what Micah saw in Jo aside from cuteness and checkered Vans. It's almost like Micah is having an affair with the ideal of a Black alternative woman rather than a flesh-and-blood person.
I really wanted to like this movie. But as lovely as so much of it is, it left a sour taste in my mouth.
["Medicine for Melancholy" still via allmoviephoto.com; "17 Reasons Why" pix via thelab.org]