THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)

  • Director: Cheryl Dunye
  • Writer: Cheryl Dunye
  • Starring: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, and Lisa-Marie Bronson
  • Accolades: NPR 2016 Top 50 films by Black Directors (#48), shown at Berlin Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Kanopy (library app), Stream with Subscription to the Criterion Channel

Cheryl Dunye is a filmmaker who was born in Liberia and grew up in Philadelphia. She recently became at least somewhat better known in the general consciousness after directing one of the more acclaimed episodes of Lovecraft Country, the current HBO series that everyone is talking about while standing around the Zoom watercooler. 22 years before that, she wrote, directed, and starred in what is thought to be the first feature film from an African-American lesbian filmmaker, The Watermelon Woman. The movie has an awful lot of interesting things to say, and also lots of really funny bits. It does suffer from the entry barrier of many labor-of-love independent films, which is that the actors tend to be amateurs and/or very inexperienced. In the presentation many bits remind me of the student films from my small liberal arts college in Ohio. Yet at the same time, the movie also convinced me so thoroughly with its faux documentary aesthetic that I was all set to go to Wikipedia and learn more about the actress Fae Richards, only to find in the closing credits that she was played in the photos and “home movies” we see by an actress named Lisa-Marie Bronson.

Dunye’s movie follows a Black lesbian main character, also named Cheryl and played by Dunye, an aspiring filmmaker who works in a video store. After developing an interest in early Black actresses (Hattie McDaniel is name-checked repeatedly), she sets out on a “project” to tell the story of one actress, relegated to demeaning “Mammy” roles, solely credited as “The Watermelon Woman.” Meanwhile, Cheryl meets a white girl named Diana (Guinevere Turner) when she walks into the video store one day, and starts a relationship with her. Cheryl’s friends disapprove, thinking that Diana is just “into chocolate,” as one says. Meanwhile, Cheryl eventually discovers that the Watermelon Woman not only had a name, but was a lesbian, and entered into a relationship with the white female director of some of her films. Cheryl never comments on the way the life of the actress, Fae Richards, rhymes with her own. In fact, the title is a reference to the 1970 movie by Marvin Van Peebles, The Watermelon Man, about a racist white man who wakes up to discover he he has magically become Black.

The movie features many sly nods and cameos from prominent members and activists in the LGBT community, including a cameo from prominent feminist Camille Paglia, who plays a larger-than-life, denser version of herself, in which she says that watermelons aren’t a negative stereotype because they are “the same colors as the Italian flag of my ancestors.” At one point Dunye visits the “Center for Lesbian Information and Technology,” or “CLIT” for short. The primary professional actor in the movie is Guinevere Turner, in the part of Diana. She was also a writer and filmmaker, having recently made her debut in the LGBT-themed Go Fish. She went on to appear in more than one Kevin Smith movie as an actress, but also kept writing screenplays, including not only several episodes of The L Word, but “mainstream” movies as disparate as American Psycho, BloodRayne, and The Notorious Bettie Page.

It is easy to forget in 2020, for those of us with the privilege not to have to deal with these things on an everyday basis, just how outside of the mainstream this would have been 1996. There wouldn’t be a lesbian kiss on television until the following year on Ellen, and even then it was wildly controversial and many believe resulted in the show’s corporate parent, Disney, essentially withdrawing its support from the show and sending it towards cancellation. Friends was making millions off of terrible gay panic jokes. Yet at the same time, The Watermelon Woman included an explicit lesbian sex scene.

As it turned out, despite the clearly artistic and loving way in which the scene in question was shot, large sections of the establishment at the time were not ready to lesbian sex to mix with their art, especially interracial sex like that shown here. A real political controversy, spearheaded by Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, developed over The Watermelon Woman and a handful of other LGBT-themed films and the fact that they had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hoekstra said that he didn’t have any problem with gay people, just gay sex, and called The Watermelon Woman “pornography.” A female critic for The Philadelphia Daily News, in a review intended, I think, to try and get people to see the movie, said “it has the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.” Hoekstra went on to read that review out in committee as evidence of the movie’s depravity. The story has something of an unhappy ending, in that the NEA did change the way it distributed funding, choosing individual projects, generally uncontroversial ones, rather than distributing general purpose funds to outside arts groups as it had done previously. Hoekstra is now the US Ambassador to the Netherlands and is doing fine for himself.

But the good news is, so is Dunye, who has spent the the time since making more movies, mostly very personal ones with a few mainstream gigs (one being the low-rent 2004 comedy My Baby’s Daddy, starring Eddie Griffin and Anthony Anderson, which I’m sure paid for a couple of worthwhile independent movies). Even in this, her first feature, that she has a great and unique voice is very apparent. The acting may have been below par, but Dunye and her collaborators were able to create an incredibly convincing series of photographs and “home movies” of Fae Richards’ fictional life. These were an art project in and of themselves, in fact being shown in art galleries and put together in a book. Dunye has stated that so many of those early Black actresses are now completely lost, many of them not even receiving credits in the films in which they appear, that she felt compelled to create a new one in order to make up for it. This she does entirely successfully here, and it is a joy to watch.

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