I honestly couldn’t tell you why I didn’t cover Barry Jenkins’ first movie as writer and director, Medicine for Melancholy, when it came out back in 2009. Perhaps it was a busy week, perhaps I couldn’t find a good version of the trailer. Whatever the reason, as I was prepping my review of the campaign for his new movie Moonlight I realized this was an oversight on my part and so will attempt to make amends.
In the movie Wyatt Cenec and Tracey Heggins play Micah and Angela, two twenty-somethings who are waking up after what was probably going to be a one-night stand. They part ways but a series of circumstances brings them back together and they wind up spending the day walking around San Francisco, talking about race, class, poverty and other social issues. The movie is a snapshot of the city, not the parks and tourist spots but the unseen parts of the city that are known to only those who are essentially forced through circumstances to live there. And it’s an examination, through the discussions that take place, of identity and fitting in to a world that at times is actively trying to keep you out.
The movie’s one poster is pretty simple. It shows Micah and Angela dancing at a club, their arms around each other and their faces in close enough for their foreheads to touch. At the top are the festival credentials of the movie, which had screenings at SXSW and elsewhere in advance of its limited release, along with a quote from a positive review by the critic at San Francisco Weekly, appropriately. What’s especially notable about the one-sheet is how it presents the movie’s look and feel, the washed-out and desaturated look that was given to it. The bright lights and close shot of the couple present a unique and memorable set of visuals.
When the trailer starts we meet the couple at the end of their one-night stand as they navigate the awkwardness in a much more realistic way than in something like Knocked Up. They share a cab away from the strange place they’ve woken up in and after a segment explaining we’re in SF and showing some of the festivals the movie played at the two start talking about their feelings about the city, about race, about relationships and more. That’s pretty much the entire rest of the trailer as we get shots of them walking around, riding bikes and otherwise exploring the city.
Like the poster, the trailer shows off the movie’s washed out visuals well, at times appearing almost to be a black-and-white film, other times showing pops of color like on Angela’s sweater. And it sells the movie exactly as it is: a feature length ground-level examination of one of the country’s most important but troubled cities through the eyes of two black people who have strong opinions about their place in it. There’s no attempt here to make it look bigger or flashier than it is and no attempt to hide that there are strong feelings beings shared. It’s a small intimate examination of class, income and racial disparities and that’s exactly what’s being sold here.
Festival screenings and the eventual IFC Films release were both accompanied by plenty of positive press and reviews, with most stories calling out Jenkins’ assured direction and the emotional realism of the story and characters. So the movie had good headwinds going into release, which was primarily through video-on-demand as the movie never, according to Box Office Mojo, played at more than seven theaters throughout its life. But as Vikram Murthi at IndieWire said earlier this year, its subject matter has never been more timely due to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the increasing rate of gentrification and rising cost of living in San Francisco and more. It’s remained relevant, but its unflinching and unconventional look at the one-night-stand and its conversations about important issues that aren’t solved make it an oddity in the film world. It’s exactly those unique traits, though, that has kept the movie in people’s minds and it’s the memory of that movie that made people anticipate Moonlight so much.