When Medicine for Melancholy came out in 2008, it announced the arrival of a talent with a genuinely unique vision, San Francisco-based filmmaker Barry Jenkins. Following two young African Americans coping with the city’s expensive and exclusive culture, Jenkins’ film offered fresh perspectives on class, race and place. The indie film community showered the film with praise; expectations were high for Jenkins’ next feature.
Six years have now passed, and that follow-up has yet to arrive. But Jenkins hasn’t been in hibernation; on the contrary, he’s been prodigiously productive, though not in areas that cinephiles tend to notice. Jenkins partnered with other young accomplished filmmakers to form the production company Strike Anywhere, a suggestive title for an outfit that makes everything from feature films to commercials and other branded content. It’s not clear what Jenkins’ involvement is in the commercial spots, but watching them, I’m tempted to look for his fingerprints. Is it the attention to small moments that are as telling as they are fleeting? The celebratory images of cultural diversity? And what does it mean that his artistic talents are found here in the service of Facebook, one of the engines of the New Digital Economy that’s driving the class divisions depicted in Medicine for Melancholy?
This is not to suggest that Jenkins sold out; that would be distorting the reality of what it means to be a young working artist today, a reality of conflicts and compromises that is as multifaceted as a filmmaker like Jenkins. He may get a paycheck for helping a $150 billion dollar company celebrate its tenth birthday, but he’ll just as readily spend his own time and money to make a 30th birthday present for a close friend. That present is in a form of a video titled A Young Couple that interviews two of Jenkins’ friends in a longterm relationship. While Jenkins probes the mysteries of their romantic chemistry, there’s an even deeper celebration of the kind of intimacy that a camera can create when placed in the right hands. Within the same year, Jenkins uses that same intimacy to profile another relationship, this time between a mixed race couple. That short film, Tall Enough, was commissioned by Bloomingdales, which helps explain why this couple is so ridiculously well-dressed.
Jenkins has also received commissions from film institutions. In One Shot, made for the Northwest Film Forum in Washington state, Jenkins uses a single take to depict a shoplifting incident. Once again he displays a strong eye for intimate details, however stray or fleeting, but here they create a mood of uncertainty and tension. It’s the closest he’s come to making an action movie. At the opposite corner of the country, Jenkins worked with the Borscht Film Festival in Miami, where he grew up. That makes his short film Chlorophyl a homecoming project of sorts, but it adopts an alienated stance, as an enigmatic young woman drifts through the city in a state of emotional paralysis. Jenkins’ camera is always looking and finding interesting locations, colors, and textures, while resisting the impulse to make an overt meaning out of them. He remains a stranger to the city, open to its possibilities.
San Francisco remains the place Jenkins calls home and knows most intimately, and that knowing is what drives the strongest of his short works. Made for the ITVS Futurestates series, Remigration takes place in a future where cities have been hyper-gentrified. Working class families have been driven out of San Francisco, but the city government, realizing that there’s no one left to do the city’s most fundamental jobs, tries to bring them back. It’s Jenkins’ first science fiction work, and it even uses CGI. But like the best sci-fi works, what makes it so effective is how its vision of the future resonates with our present reality, featuring actors who have experienced gentrification first-hand. Their direct, documentary testimonies have an immediacy that brings genuine feeling to Jenkins’ futurist concept. And what seems like sci-fi on the surface unfolds into a relationship story, one of people dealing with a sense of broken trust with the city they love but that takes them for granted. Once again, intimacy emerges as Jenkins’ dominant theme; and his filmography is a chronicle of how he’s strived to keep that intimacy—with the people and places he loves—alive at all costs.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.