Lisa Marie Bronson
1 Hr., 24 Mins.
The Watermelon Woman June 22, 2020
heryl (Cheryl Dunye), the heroine of 1996’s inventive, personal The Watermelon Woman, is a 25-year-old filmmaker. Well, only kind of. She works at a video store and dreams of one day becoming a director. As the action starts in the movie, Cheryl thinks she might have found a subject for her directing debut. But how exactly she would like to go about paying homage to them (through dramatization, documentary?)
is unclear to her. Cheryl as of late has become infatuated with a black actress she has recurrently seen in cheaply shot black-and-white movies from the 1930s and ‘40s. The performer, magnetic on screen though frustratingly relegated to familiar-for-the-era “mammy” and maid parts, is only credited as “the Watermelon Woman.”
Cheryl’s best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker), who works at the store with her and who also has filmmaking aspirations, balks at Cheryl’s fixation on the actress. Whenever she puts on a movie featuring the Watermelon Woman in the tape player, Tamara groans that Cheryl is on her “mammy shit” again. But Cheryl can’t help but get increasingly interested in finding out more about this woman, whom she later finds out is named Fae Richards. Richards’ fate is but a microcosm of what happened to so many black performers of that era and before then. If they were seeking a “mainstream breakthrough” in the movies, they would almost exclusively only be offered roles steeping in racial stereotype. To add insult to injury, their artistic contributions would go on to be largely trivialized, further overshadowed by the white entertainers surrounding them.
How much great art from black creatives have we missed out on in the course of history? How many stories have gone untold in favor of another? How many unworthy white artists have been over-celebrated while black artists more-than-deserving of overwrought veneration were never so much as given a proper platform? One thing that particularly vexes Cheryl, and stands out as just one egregious example of these imbalances, is that Richards, for a time, was the muse of the white woman director Martha Page. Page, akin to classic Hollywood-era female filmmakers like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, has been emphatically (and not necessarily incorrectly) characterized as a trailblazer. Meanwhile, much of Page’s trailblazing was aided by a favorite collaborator whom she did not credit appropriately, to whom she did not give weighty roles, and who would subsequently not be characterized in history books like Page because she would not be in them in the first place.
Sporadically galvanizing revelations inspire Cheryl to keep digging. She’s astounded by what she ultimately finds out. Richards was a lesbian, actually had a brief romantic relationship with Page (a revelation that makes the latter’s casting choices even more questionable), and when not in movies worked as a lounge singer at local gay bars. Before, uncovering the truths about Richards was more broadly about legitimizing the work of an unrecognized black actress. But when Cheryl finds out that Richards, like her, is a black lesbian, it hits a particular nerve. It stings knowing that Richards’ public-facing persona didn’t do justice to the interesting woman that she was. But it especially stings knowing that the black lesbian representation so sorely lacking in cinema was literally right there but unceremoniously stamped out. Work has had to be done to fill in the blanks. Scenes in The Watermelon Woman that seem on track to go somewhere dramatically juicy — a confrontation with a lover, a misunderstanding with the police — end abruptly, usually through a jump-cut. The stylistic choice, fittingly, seems to want to nudge conversations between viewers to try to locate the truth themselves, as noted by Clayton Dillard of Slant.
In addition to being an indictment of representational injuries inflicted by the long-standingly white-supremacist film industry, The Watermelon Woman
functions as a playful work of autofiction. Dunye is essentially playing herself. The film’s narrative partially came to her around 1993, when she was conducting research for an assignment for a black film-history class. Dunye was jarred not only by how difficult it was to find out more about black actresses of the Hollywood Golden Age but also how often they went entirely uncredited for their work. Insertions of documentary-style footage — Tamara and Cheryl diligently record on video the painstaking research process — mirror Dunye’s own time-consuming truth-digging. It’s like a visual recapitulation of what it took for Dunye to literally make The Watermelon Woman. When her semi-fictional screen duplicate speaks of her struggles getting to Richards’ essence, they seem like abstractions revealing truths about her own directorial process.
made up, it’s still fundamentally a conglomeration of very-real, innumerable tragic truths. (I’m sure many viewers might spend the movie unsure of whether Richards was real or not, given how plausibly Dunye has told both her and Page’s histories.) “How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of those years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write?” Alice Walker wondered in her 1972 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” which I sometimes thought about while watching The Watermelon Woman.
Such descriptions might make the movie sound unbearably sad. While foundationally it is, given that the forgotten histories it invokes are hardly fictional figments, the film is more often than not wryly funny. Dunye seems to be poking some fun at the earnestness-cum-aimlessness with which this semi-autobiographical version of herself acts. Representations, or at least human simulacra, of the systemic obstacles and types of people preventing women like Richards from being recognized are arguably satirically characterized. At one point in the movie, Cheryl visits the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT) after having no luck finding out more about Richards at more mainstream hotspots, à la the local library. While there, she sees the most evidence of who Richards was (there are available photographs that make clear her sexuality) but finds that the white management is so austere about preservation that even transitory looks at documents are cut short. That evidence of Richards is so hard to pin down here (dusty boxes have to be sedulously rifled through) is a symbolic struggle.
In the middle of the film, Cheryl pays a visit to professor Camille Paglia (in the guise of what appears to be a self-parodying version of herself, or more generally certain kinds of over-cerebral white feminist historians and philosophers) to discuss the cultural significance of the mammy stereotype. Paglia, or “Camille Paglia,” misguidedly tries to redefine the stereotype as a misunderstood “goddess” totem — a symbol of abundance, really — rather than a racist figure. “Paglia” dismisses the watermelon as a device for racist stereotyping because she’s “biased” toward her love for her Italian heritage; it seems to her unquestionably positive, no matter the context. It’s over-intellectualizing, subject-swerving, that so often can contribute to the
obfuscation of racist historical injuries.
For much of the film, Cheryl is having a fling with Diana (Guinevere Turner), an orthodoxly attractive white woman who frequently shops at the video store. Diana initially has a sort of dreamgirlness to her — so much so that when Tamara and some of Cheryl’s other friends voice reservations, Cheryl doesn’t listen much at first. But then Diana, who lives in a roomy and chic and clearly expensive apartment despite only working as a volunteer at a nonprofit that helps underprivileged kids, who makes it a point to brag that she’s had three black boyfriends, and who to appear cool and cosmopolitan lets it be known at a dinner party that she’s lived in plenty of exotic places, seems a recognizable liberal type. Fundamentally, her associations with black people seem sort of ensnared in self-interest. It’s like she’s trying to prove something to herself and others — like she’s tacitly trying to be complimented for a racial open-mindedness. It's evident that Cheryl and Diana's relationship, in many ways, is supposed to work as a funhouse reflection of the one said to have existed between Richards and Page. The outwardly liberal Page seemed ultimately to want to be with Richards to get some kind of cultural (and in her case, additionally financial) capital.
Toward the end of The Watermelon Woman, a woman named June (Cheryl Clarke), who professes to have been Richards’ longtime lover, leaves Cheryl a voicemail after she’s caught on to what the fledgling filmmaker is doing. She implores Cheryl to avoid Martha Page in her movie. In the grand scheme of Richards’ life, their relationship was barely an iota. Cheryl must not forget that this is Richards’ story. In telling this fictional (albeit more-than-plausible) story, Dunye also reveals so much of her own. A-
ometimes you have to create your own history,” says a title card at the end of The Watermelon Woman. Such alludes to the fact that this feature-length is indeed considered the first directed by a black lesbian filmmaker. Then, when a subsequent title card informs us that the Watermelon Woman (the person) is fiction, the feature reminds us that even if one of its key characteristics is