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Barry Jenkins's 2008 debut, Medicine for Melancholy, shows all of his pre-Moonlight promise

Now streaming on Netflix, the film is part romance, part social commentary.

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Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins in Medicine for Melancholy, the first film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, who also made Moonlight.
Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins in Medicine for Melancholy, the first film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, who also made Moonlight.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for March 4 through 10 is Medicine for Melancholy (2008), which is streaming on Netflix and available to rent on Amazon or iTunes.

Moonlight took home three Oscars on Sunday night, including Best Picture after a brief but total snafu. It’s a small and artful film, and its win against the heavily favored La La Land was a stunner for many, including the filmmakers. The movie’s director is Barry Jenkins, who also won (with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney) the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Nine years before Jenkins won Best Picture, his debut feature film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, played in a handful of theaters. It’s an ultra-low-budget movie that tackles big topics around race, gentrification, and black identity; Jenkins produced it for $13,000 — less than a tenth of Moonlight’s relatively low $1.5 million budget — which he borrowed from a friend.

Medicine for Melancholy ultimately made about $111,000 at the box office (Moonlight recently crossed $22 million), and Jenkins was only 29 when it was released. But the film announced that a major talent had arrived — a promise that was fulfilled with Moonlight’s big win.

Medicine for Melancholy
Medicine for Melancholy.

Medicine for Melancholy follows two black 20-somethings in San Francisco (The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) who wake up after a one-night stand and part ways, only to have to reunite because one of them left their keys in the cab they split. They end up spending the day together, going to see an exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora, walking into a community meeting about affordable housing, and then attending a concert together. All the while, they talk about being black in the midst of a predominately white hipster culture (San Francisco has the smallest percentage of black residents of any major American city), and about how they think about life and relationships.

It feels like a movie made by an experienced writer/director, with characters that seem fully drawn in their specifics but also types, representing different points of view on race. And that was on purpose: As Jenkins told the New York Times in 2009, “When I started the film I was teetering between these two viewpoints. It’s like I was splitting my personality in two.”

He also lifted most of the color out of the film, leaving it in nearly black and white. That choice subtly underlined the two central characters’ main topic of discussion, while also imbuing the story with a kind of timeless feel. The pair are certainly San Franciscans near the end of the 21st century’s first decade, but their concerns are not new at all — and neither, in a sense, is their story.

And yet, as with Moonlight, the social commentary in Medicine for Melancholy is embedded within a sort of romance. The movie shares some DNA with 2016’s Southside With You, a recreation of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, as well as 2004’s Before Sunset; both films feature two strangers who spend the whole movie talking to one another, excavating life’s mysteries at the start of what might be a relationship, or what might just be a memory. As they learn about each other and themselves, we learn something about ourselves, too.

That’s why, while Moonlight’s win was both monumental and a happy surprise, it would be great to see its light deflected back toward Jenkins’s first film. All the talent he showcased in Moonlight is there, as is all of the thoughtfulness.

Watch the trailer for Medicine for Melancholy:

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