The Watermelon Woman

First Run Features,

Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl Dunye,
Guinevere Turner,
Valarie Walker,
Lisa Marie Bronson,
Irene Dunye,
Brian Freeman,
Camille Paglia,
Sarah Schulman,
Kat Robertson,
V.S. Brodie

Unrated, 83 minutes

Color Blind
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, June 2009

There were many "firsts" in the annals of independent Queer Cinema and Cheryl Duyne's The Watermelon Woman (1996) was the first feature film to be directed by a lesbian of color and the first to specifically address the lives of her African American Sapphic sisters. Due in no small part, I'm sure, to Duyne's cheeky approach to her subject, the film is still fresh and vibrant more than ten years later. The Watermelon Woman won the Teddy Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival

A free-spirited black video store clerk named Cheryl, played by Duyne, harbors aspirations of becoming a documentary filmmaker. In the meantime, she supplements her income by videotaping weddings with her best friend, and co-worker, Tamara (Valarie Walker). Setting the tone for what is to come, the two are filming the outdoor nuptials of a black groom and his white bride whose families ignore each other from opposite sides of the yard. They put their own creative stamp on the video by inter-cutting images of urban blight.

Cheryl takes advantage of her job and orders obscure movies, using the names of the video store's customers, so that she can take them home herself to research her film project. While watching Plantation Memories, a low budget Gone With the Wind-styled film from the 1930s, Cheryl is struck by a beautiful colored maid who is identified in the credits only as "the Watermelon Woman." Seeing this as an interesting subject for a documentary, she searches for any information that she can find about the actress - her real name for starters. She discovers that the actress, Fae Richards, had an affair with her director, Martha Page (a white woman based loosely on real life 1930s lesbian director Dorothy Arzner), and this gives her the hook she needs on which to hang her film. Paralleling the film she is making, she finds herself entering into a passionate affair of her own with a white woman named Diana (Go Fish's Guinevere Turner) who catches her eye when she rents Cleopatra Jones at the video store.

The Watermelon Woman is a refreshing film that skewers the treatment of black actors during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood when their roles were usually confined to playing the domestic help. Its other big theme involves inter-racial romance and the prejudice that still comes with it when Cheryl's friends show disapproval because she isn't dating a "black sister" - the irony here, of course, being the inability of the lesbian "sisters" to accept someone who doesn't fulfill their other meaning of "sister" (black).
Cheryl strikes gold on many of the leads that she follows while others turn up as dead ends. Her mother's old friend, an unmarried and retired factory worker, remembers seeing Fae perform at many colored nightclubs and tells Cheryl that Fae "sang for all us stone butches." Controversial culture critic Camille Pagila complains of the way modern black scholarship looks at the films of the 30s and calls Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind an earth goddess. Cheryl visits C.L.I.T. (the Center For Lesbian Info & Technology), a "volunteer collective" in which all of their archival material lies unorganized in boxes. "We received a very generous gift from the Hysteria Collection," the curator tells Cheryl, "But they wanted it to be used exclusively for African American lesbians so if we have any photographs in which there are white people, then we just cross them out." Martha Page's surviving sister is of no use because she refuses to accept reality and admit that her sibling was a lesbian.
For the most part, the tone of The Watermelon Woman is comic and hits all the right satiric notes. Consider the rapid-fire and outrageously clue-less discourse delivered by Camille Pagila during her interview segment. (I am assuming that she was deliberately indulging in self parody here and poking fun at her own background in feminist and cultural studies, not to mention her legendary talent for pissing people off.)

"The watermelon, it seems to me, is another image that has been misinterpreted by a lot of black commentary. The great extended get-togethers of the Italian family that I remember as a child ended with the men bringing out a watermelon and ritualistically cutting it and distributing the pieces to everyone, almost like the Communion service, and I really don't like this reductionism of a picture of a small black boy with a watermelon, broadly smiling over it, and looking at that as negative instead of as a symbol of joy and pleasure and fruitfulness, after all a piece of watermelon has the same colors as the Italian flag.... but I think that the watermelon symbolizes African American culture and rightly so because look what white middle class feminism stands for - anorexia and bulimia..."

Duyne must have had a blast playing with filmic cliches and racial stereotypes while she and her art directors created the old, scratchy film parodies and faded photographs. The clip from Plantation Memories in which the Watermelon Woman comforts her white mistress, as a lush string arrangement of "My Old Kentucky Home" drones in the background, is so deliberately cliched and offensive that it cannot help but induce belly laughs. Ditto for the other "race films" that Cheryl watches. "I can barely stand the stuff Hollywood puts out now," says Tamara, "Let alone that nigger-mammy shit from the 30s."
The brassy Tamara, it turns out, could learn a bit of tolerance herself. While arguing about Cheryl's white lady friend, her sassy attitude colors their flip dialogues. Tamara accuses Diana of being a white girl who wants to be black and asks Cheryl why she is ashamed of her own skin color. Cheryl wants nothing to do with Yvette, the dippy black sister that Tamara keeps trying to fix her up with. We meet Yvette in an early scene at a karaoke bar where, dressed like a 20s flapper with a cigarette in a holder, she sashays up to the microphone to mangle that old Minnie Ripperton chestnut, "Loving You."
Most interesting of all is the way the faux-history of Fae Richards comes to life and one almost wishes that this wasn't a mockumentary and that the Watermelon Woman really existed. (As Duyne says at the film's conclusion: "We create our own identity.") Though fabricated, the old film clips and photographs are utterly convincing. Using a few actual archive clips of the colored nightclub scene help blur the line even further. The very questions of identity are further confused as this is a work of fiction yet Cheryl Duyne, her mother and Camille Paglia appear as themselves. Consider another scene too in which identity is skewed when two racial-profiling police officers - one white and one black - mistake the butchly dressed Cheryl for a young street thug and assume her video camera is stolen property.
Finally, there is Cheryl's romance with Diana. While not the film's main focus, there are genuine sparks between these two ladies and their love story is probably one of the sexiest in all of lesbian cinema. Their love scenes involve a lot of tongues and will certainly please those in the audience who like a little spice. Their steamy sexual interlude provoked outrage from the same conservative Congressmen who seem to have nothing better to do with their time besides bitch about how money from the National Endowment For The Arts is being spent - putting The Watermelon Woman in the same esteemed company as Todd Haynes' Poison, performance artists Tim Miller and Holly Hughes, and a certain Robert Mapplethorpe art exhibition. (Duyne's website reports that Senator Jesse Helms called the film, "flotsam floating down a sewer." I'm sure that the inter-racial aspect to the sex really got their knickers in a twist.)

The Watermelon Woman is 1990s guerrilla New Queer Cinema at its best. Made on a shoestring, and treating its themes with playful irreverence, this film is a lot of fun! Duyne is tackling serious themes but attacking it from such a fresh angle that you can't help being swept up by it. Its mix of film stock and video (for the documentary segments) is as playful as the approach Duyne takes to her subject. Most of the actors seem to be just being themselves but this adds to the film's freshness - a trait that it shares with Go Fish, another of the best lesbian films of the 90s. There is also another link with Rose Troche's film: aside from Guinevere Turner's participation, her partner from Go Fish - V.S. Brodie - also appears in the before-mentioned karaoke bar to drone a lifeless rendition of "Boogie Oogie Oogie." Look for Brian Freeman from the improv comedy troupe, Pomo Afro Homos, as a film historian.

The DVD also includes the interview with Duyne that appears in the 1996 documentary, Lavender Limelight. This is a great film, check it out.


Guinevere Turner and V.S. Brodie also appear in:
Go Fish

Guinevere Turner also appear in:
Chasing Amy