Directed by Cheryl Dunye
The Watermelon Woman is a pseudo-documentary (mockumentary) about the adventures of Cheryl, a young, black lesbian who works in a video store and wants to be a filmmaker. She becomes obsessed with her search for a black actress who she’s seen appearing in old films from the 1930s. This actress is billed only as the ‘Watermelon Woman’ and Cheryl suspects her of being a lesbian. She sets out to discover the truth about the Watermelon Woman. On the way she has an affair with a white woman called Diana, which causes tensions in her relationship with her best friend Tamara. Through her search for the Watermelon Woman, Cheryl comes to realisations about racial politics in the lesbian community and discovers the history of black lesbian culture in Philadelphia.
I really enjoyed The Watermelon Women, but in order to get the most out of it, there are a few things you have to accept from the get go.
Warning: some spoilers!
This is the director’s debut film, it looks amateurish and the acting is generally very bad. Dunye herself is engaging and Lisa Marie Bronson as the Watermelon Woman is wonderful, but almost everybody else is wooden. However, I think this is due to lack of money (and having to employ friends) rather than any lack of filmmaking talent.
Personally, I am totally prepared to forgive the bad acting because I think the Watermelon Woman has what really counts, and that’s the storytelling. Unlike Itty Bitty Titty Committee this film has a moral centre and knows what it’s trying to do. You can also tell that it’s a labour of love for the director. I found myself absorbed in Dunye’s quest and wanting to know more about the Watermelon Woman, although I knew she wasn’t a real person, but was standing in for a whole range of “unknown” black actresses from the 1930s.
The film also has a lovely light touch in its humour. The Watermelon Woman makes fun of feminism, but it doesn’t have the horribly cynical undercurrent of Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Here we have Camille Paglia being a good sport, sending herself (and white academic feminists) up something rotten. Then we have Sarah Schulman, a lesbian feminist author I love, doing a cameo as the archivist in the ‘Center for Lesbian Info and Technology’. When Dunye asks if she can take some photographs away, the CLIT archivist says something along the lines of “I’ll have to check with the collective. We meet once every other month. I’ll let you know if we reach a consensus” (anyone who’s had experience of the ah slow decision making processes in collectives will know Cheryl isn’t getting those photographs anytime soon). Even Diana, the white woman who only dates black people, isn’t eviscerated; she’s treated as a kind of ridiculous figure and Cheryl has enough self-respect to just walk away from her.
Another treat in this film is seeing butch lesbian experience being centred and valued — a surprisingly rare occurrence in lesbian films which mostly privilege femme characters or have feminine actresses doing a rather unconvincing job of playing butch lesbians. Dunye found some amazing butch women to take part in her film.
Cheryl discovers the Watermelon Woman’s “real” identity (as Fay Richards) and her love affair with a white woman movie director. She finds this fascinating and wants to know more, but eventually she receives a letter from Fay’s other lover, June Walker, exhorting her not to see Fay’s life only in the context of her unhealthy relationship with the white woman, but rather in the context of her much longer partnership with June and life as a much loved member of the black lesbian community. Fay’s lover is voiced wonderfully by African American poet Cheryl Clarke. It’s a moving ending which reiterates the importance of history and community, affirms Cheryl’s sense of identity, and puts her own experience as a black lesbian in context.
And there’s even Toshi Reagon as a street musician at the very end.