Watermelon Man (film)
U.S. theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Produced by||John B. Bennett|
|Written by||Herman Raucher|
|Music by||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Cinematography||W. Wallace Kelley|
|Edited by||Carl Kress|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Release date(s)||May 27, 1970|
|Running time||98 minutes|
|Box office||$1.1 million (US/ Canada rentals)|
Watermelon Man is a 1970 American comedy-drama film, directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Written by Herman Raucher, it tells the story of an extremely bigoted 1960's era White insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber, who wakes up one morning to find that he has become Black. The premise for the film was inspired by Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, and by John Howard Griffin's autobiographical Black Like Me.
Van Peebles' only studio film, Watermelon Man was a financial success, but Van Peebles did not accept Columbia Pictures' three-picture contract, instead developing the independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The music for Watermelon Man, written and performed by Van Peebles, was released on a soundtrack album, which spawned the single "Love, that's America". In 2011, that single received much mainstream attention when videos set to the song and featuring footage of Occupy Wall Street became viral.
Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) lives in an average suburban neighborhood with his seemingly liberal housewife Althea (Estelle Parsons), who tolerates her husband's character flaws out of love, and two children, Burton (Scott Garrett) and Janice (Erin Moran). Every morning when Jeff wakes up, he spends some time under a tanning machine, hits the speedbag, drinks a health drink, and races the bus to work on foot.
Jeff presents himself as happy-go-lucky and quite a joker, but others tend to see him as obnoxious and boorish. Althea, who watches the race riots every night on TV with great interest, chastises Jeff for not having sympathy for the problems of black Americans.
One morning, Jeff wakes up to find that his pigment has changed. He tries to fall back asleep, thinking that it is a dream, but to no avail. He tries taking a shower to wash the "black" off him, but finds it doesn't work, when Althea walks into the bathroom, and screams. He explains to her that the "Negro in the bathroom" is him.
At first, Jeff believes this to be the result of spending too much time under the tanning machine. He spends almost the entire day at home, afraid to go out of the house, only going out once to venture into the "colored part of town" in order to find a pharmacy to buy "the stuff they use in order to make themselves look white." His attempts to change his skin color fail.
The next day, he is persuaded to get up and go to work. Things start out well at first, until Jeff is accused of robbery while running alongside the bus to work. The policeman assumes that, since he is a black man, he must have "stolen" something. During his lunch break, he makes an appointment with his doctor who cannot explain Jeff's "condition" either. After several calls, the doctor suggests that Jeff might be more comfortable with a black doctor.
Returning home, he finds Althea afraid to answer the phone. He doesn't understand why until he receives a call from a man telling him to "Move out, nigger!" At work the next day, a secretary (who had previously ignored him) makes several advances toward him, finding him more attractive as a black man. Jeff's boss suggests that they could drum up extra business with a "Negro" salesman.
At home one evening, he finds the people who had made the threatening phone calls, who offer him $50,000 for his home. Jeff manages to raise the price to $100,000. Althea sends the children to live with a relative and later leaves her husband. Finally accepting the fact that he is black, Jeff resigns his regular job, buys an apartment building, and starts his own insurance company. The very last scene shows him practicing martial arts with a group of black menial workers, apparently having become one of the militants he used to put down.
Godfrey Cambridge plays the role of Jeff Gerber in whiteface for the first few minutes of the film, and then goes without the makeup when his character changes into a black man. Before director Melvin Van Peebles had come into the project, the studio had told him that they were planning to cast a white actor like Alan Arkin or Jack Lemmon to play the part, but that it didn't seem to work quite right. When Van Peebles read the screenplay, he had thought that the studio had sent him the wrong script. When he was told that they had planned to cast a white actor and have him play the part in black makeup for part of the film, Van Peebles suggested that they cast a black actor instead.
A popular rumor suggests that Van Peebles was contractually obliged to deliver an alternative ending to the film, but that Van Peebles incurred the studio's wrath by agreeing to film the original ending, and then not delivering the ending as he had promised. On the film's DVD release, Van Peebles explains that he had hated the ending, and convinced studio executives that it had to be changed, but they said he had to film both versions of the ending - he says he only filmed the one, "by accident". The alternative ending was to be that Gerber wakes up as a white man and learns his time as a black man was only a nightmare, but that he realizes he ought to be more sensitive towards others.
Columbia was happy with the finished product, and the film was a financial success, leading the studio to offer Van Peebles a three-picture contract. Instead of taking their offer, Van Peebles made the independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which later turned out to not only be the highest grossing independent film of 1971, but also the highest grossing independent film up to that point. Following that film's success, Columbia tore up Van Peebles' contract.
|Soundtrack album by Melvin Van Peebles|
|Melvin Van Peebles chronology|
Van Peebles wrote the music to Watermelon Man himself, in order to have creative control. A soundtrack album was released in 1970, and "Love, that's America", a song from the film and soundtrack, was released as a single in the same year. The single was mentioned as a top pick in Billboard Magazine's Oct 31, 1970 issue.
The song is narrated from the point of view of someone walking around America, and seeing "people run through the streets, blood streaming from where they been beat", and declaring "naw, this ain't America, you can't fool me".
The soundtrack album was never released on compact disc, although it was released as a digital download through Amazon MP3 and iTunes. In 2011, "Love, that's America" gained new notice as part of a video set to footage of Occupy Wall Street.
- Track listing
All songs written and composed by Melvin Van Peebles.
|1.||"Love, that's America"||4:55|
|4.||"Soul'd on You"||3:43|
|1.||"Where are the Children"||3:39|
- "Big Rental Films of 1970", Variety, 6 January 1971 p 11
- Van Peebles, Melvin. Watermelon Man DVD, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004, DVD introduction. ASIN: B0002KPI1O
- "Billboard - Google Books". Books.google.com. 1970-08-29. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- "Billboard - Google Books". Books.google.com. 1970-10-31. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- Frank Beacham (2011-10-23). "Frank Beacham's Journal: Melvin Van Peebles' 41-Year-Old Protest Song". Beachamjournal.com. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- "Watermelon Man soundtrack details". SoundtrackCollector. Retrieved 2007-07-07.
- "Watermelon Man: Melvin Van Peebles: MP3 Downloads". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- "iTunes - Music - Watermelon Man by Melvin Van Peebles". Itunes.apple.com. 2009-05-25. Retrieved 2013-10-04.
- [dead link]