The Watermelon Woman is an independent film from 1996 that had a 20th Anniversary screening at this year’s Outfest in Los Angeles.
Cheryl Dunye, the film’s writer and director, also stars in the film as herself (or some version of it). The Cheryl in the film is a young, black lesbian working in a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend Tamara (Valerie Walker) – who is also young, black and lesbian.
The Cheryl in the film is also an aspiring filmmaker — in that she has a desire to make films, but doesn’t know what she wants to make films about. She’s partial to movies from the 1930s and 1940s that feature black actresses who often weren’t even credited for their roles (and those they were credited for were largely subservient, stereotypical and unflattering in nature). So the Cheryl in the film knows that the film she wants to make should be something along those lines because most of the stories of these black actresses have never been told.
One day she comes across such a film that features what she considers to be the most beautiful woman she has ever seen on the cover. Billed only as “The Watermelon Woman”, Cheryl decides to make a film about her and embarks on an all-consuming research project to find out who this woman is and what her story was and/or still is.
Cheryl starts off by interviewing her own mother (played by Dunye’s real-life mother Irene) as well as other family members, friends, students and scholars. Her efforts not only lead her to the watermelon woman’s actual name (Fae Richards) but also to surprising discoveries about Richard’s private life – which in some ways mirrors Cheryl’s own.
These interviews are intertwined with the ongoing narrative of Cheryl’s daily life while she tries to make progress on the film. In the latter, a relationship develops between Cheryl and a customer at the video store – a white woman named Diana (Guinevere Turner) who had taken an instant liking to Cheryl.
The Watermelon Woman is one of the first films (if not THE first) about a black lesbian that is written, directed and produced by a black lesbian. As such, it not only takes on the rather uncomfortable topics of opportunities for black women in film, the portrayals of black women in film and the place of black women in the ongoing history of film, but approaches them from a uniquely personal perspective.
By the end of the film, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred in that Cheryl in the film and Dunye herself with the film itself are both making points about black women in film. And though the ending is rather abrupt, both Cheryl in the film and Dunye with the film itself are effectively able to get these points across.
The events of the film are largely fictional. And while some people viewing the film will realize this before the end of the film, I did not. I bought into the story of The Watermelon Woman because knowing what I know of Hollywood history as it relates to black women, it would not surprise me if there actually was a black actress in the 1930s and 1940s who was billed only as The Watermelon Woman and relegated only to certain roles that Hollywood producers of the day believed audiences of the day would accept seeing them in.
Unfortunately, even seventy and eighty years later, not much has REALLY changed in Hollywood — except that NO studio would EVER get away with billing ANY actress as The Watermelon Woman.
At least I hope not.