Cheryl Dunye

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Cheryl Dunye
Born (1966-05-13) May 13, 1966 (age 51)
Education BA at Temple University. MA at Rutgers University
Occupation film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, actress

Cheryl Dunye (born May 13, 1966) is a film director, producer, screenwriter, editor and actress. Dunye is a lesbian[1] and her work often concerns themes of race, sexuality, and gender, particularly issues relating to black lesbians.

Dunye was born in Liberia, and grew up in Philadelphia. She received her BA from Temple University and her MFA from Rutger's Mason Gross School of Art.[2] She has taught at the University of California Los Angeles, UC Riverside, Pitzer College, Claremont Graduate University, Pomona College, California Institute of the Arts, The New School of Social Research, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.[3]

She is currently an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and a mother of two children.[3]

Film career[edit]

Dunye began her career with six short films which have been collected on DVD as The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye.[4][5] Most of these videos featured the use of mixed media, a blurring of fact and fiction and explored issues relating to the director’s experience as a black lesbian filmmaker.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)[edit]

Her feature debut was The Watermelon Woman (1996), a film which explored the history of black women and lesbians in film[6] and "[it] has earned a place in cinematic history as the first feature-length narrative film written and directed by out black lesbian about black lesbians.”[7]

The Watermelon Woman sparked controversy in 1997 through its funding by National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants. Rep. Pete Hoekstra wrote a letter to the NEA chairwoman, Jane Alexander, stating that The Watermelon Woman “is one of several gay- and lesbian-themed works cited by the Michigan Republican as evidence of "the serious possibility that taxpayer money is being used to fund the production and distribution of patently offensive and possibly pornographic movies."’ Because of this controversy the NEA restructured itself by awarding grants to specific projects, rather than giving funding straight to arts groups for dispersion.[8]

In 1993 Dunye was doing research for a class on black film history, by looking for information on black actresses in early films. Many times the credits for these women were left out of the film. Dunye decided that she was going to use her work to create a story for black women in early films, which became The Watermelon Woman.When confronted about the omissions in film history, Dunye replied, "That it's going to take more than just my film for that picture to be corrected", says Dunye. "There needs to be more work, there needs to be more black protagonists. There are a lot of talented actresses that have nothing to do but "mammy" roles again and again, modem day mammies. There needs to be a focus that gets them working, getting some of those Academy Awards like they should.” [9] The film’s title is a play on the Melvin Van Peebles’s film The Watermelon Man (1970).[7]

For the production of the film, Dunye conducted her research at the Lesbian Herstory Archive and the Library of Congress. However, she quickly discovered that neither had the specific resources she was looking for and accessing them was beyond her budget for the film, causing her to stage 78 of the archival photographs featured in the film.[10]

In the film, the protagonist Cheryl, played by the director, is an aspiring black lesbian filmmaker attempting to bring about the history of black lesbians in cinematic history while attempting to produce her own work because “our stories have never been told.”[11] The story explores the difficulty in navigating archival sources that either excludes or ignores black queer women working in Hollywood,[10] particularly that of actress Fae Richards whose character bore the name that provides the title for the film.[7] The film also features a number of appearances by queer art figures such as Sarah Schulman, Camille Paglia, Cheryl Clarke, amongst others.[11]

The Watermelon Woman Aired on the Sundance Channel on August 12, 1998. Dunye was the only female director to be showcased during that month. Dunye was selected as one of POWER UP's 2008 Top-10 Powerful Women In Showbiz.[12]

Stranger Inside (2001)[edit]

Dunye's second feature is the HBO produced television movie Stranger Inside based on the experiences of African-American lesbians in prison.[13] The film had a budget of $2 million and was released in theaters as well as on their network.[14]

The film deals with a young woman and juvenile offender named Treasure (Yolanda Ross), who seeks to build a relationship with her estranged mother by getting transferred to the same prison facility once she becomes an adult.[11][14]

Dunye became interested in exploring motherhood within imprisonment in Stranger Inside by the birth of her daughter and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.[11][14][15] Additionally, Dunye was interested in the topic of incarcerated women through Angela Davis’s work and the Critical Resistance’s Creating Change conference at University of California, Berkeley.[14] In a 2004 issue of Feminist Studies, Dunye discussed some of her inspiration and purpose for the film, particularly how these women make prison a home. "In approaching this piece," Dunye says, "I was interested in how connected a lot of these women are to the outside world and how they find that balance to being an inmate, being a mother, being a member of a family or a clan, or a group that got them in--one that they support or have to support. It puts these women in many different spaces at the same time. But one space that they have to call home is this institution: the prison."[16] Dunye did extensive research into women’s prisons and extended this research process to the cast and crew during preproduction, like visiting actual women’s prisons.[14] Dunye conducted a screenwriting workshop modeled after Rhodessa Jones’s Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women during her research.[14] The workshop consisted of Dunye working with 12 incarcerated women from the Shakopee Correctional Facility in Minnesota; this partnership was commissioned through the Walker Art Center during Dunye’s time as the center’s Artist in Residence.[14] Dunye looked to understand the interpersonal relationships in prison and their use as a means of survival.[14] The collaborative project of the script was then performed in live readings by the twelve workshop participants and presented at the prison. By the time of the release of the film, seven of these women were released and were able to attend a screening at the Walker Center.[14] Those that had not yet completed their sentences were able to view the film at the Shakopee Women’s Facility as the film was screened there as well. A live reading performed by professional actors was recorded by the Walker Centre and was showcased at festivals and contributed to the successful funding and production of the film.[14]

Other Works[edit]

Taking a turn from self-written lesbian-focused films, she directed My Baby's Daddy starring Eddie Griffin, Michael Imperioli, and Anthony Anderson in 2004, although a character in the film turns out to be lesbian.[17]

She directed The Owls, co-written with novelist Sarah Schulman, which made its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is about a group of "Older, Wiser Lesbians" (an acronym of which provides the title) who accidentally kill a younger woman and try to cover it up.[18] The cast includes Guinevere Turner and V.S. Brodie, who had appeared together in the 1994 lesbian-themed film Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman, as well as Dunye, Lisa Gornick, Skyler Cooper, and Deak Evgenikos.[18]

As of 2010, Dunye is working on a film called Adventures in the 419, also co-written with Schulman, which was selected as one of the works-in-progress films in the Tribeca All Access program during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.[19][20] The film is set in Amsterdam and is about 419 scams among the immigrant community.[20]

Dunye has expressed interest in adapting some literary works from Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde.[15]


Dunye cites numerous influences that have contributed to her work including that of Chantal Akerman, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Godard but notes that Jim McBride’s David Holtzman’s Diary (1967) and Charles Burnett’s Killer Sheep (1977) are some of the “most powerful” influences on her.[21]

Her first video, Wild Thing, was an experimental adaptation of the live reading by the black lesbian author and poet Sapphire.[21] Some of the other literary figures that Dunye recalls include Harriet Jacobs,[11][15] Toni Morrison,[11] Audre Lorde [15][21] and Fannie Hurst.[14] Notably she has remarked that her work often brings to mind, American experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer and that she “[owes] Michelle Pakerson a lot.” [21] For Stranger Inside, Dunye has said that both the adaptations and the novel Imitation of Life played a major part in the mood of the film.[14]


There are a collection of themes that are noted to appear in Dunye’s work including but not limited to motherhood and mother/daughter relationships;[11] history/the making of history;[7][11] memory;[7][11] black lesbianism, queerness;[7][11][21] intersectionality;[7] interracial relationships;[7][11] identity politics[21] and self-reflexivity.[7][11]


“Dunye has described her early films and videos as ‘dunyementaries’, works in which she integrates ‘documentary and fiction,’”[11] but this style is present in most of her following work as well. In The Watermelon Woman, personal archival materials are the essential pieces that form the history that the protagonist is searching to discover. Photographs, both authentic images from the 1930s and 1940s and recreations made by the director of photography Zoë Leonard, were used in the film and play an important part in the construction of the history that the protagonist seeks.[7][10]

In Stranger Inside, Dunye mixes documentary and fiction, as some of the background actors were actual former inmates. The film was first conceived as a documentary feature, and it employs documentary techniques, but Dunye felt that a narrative approach would better suit the subject matter.[11][15]







Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "Cheryl Dunye — Director, Screenwriter, Film & Media Maker". official website. Cheryl Dunye. Retrieved 2007-06-30. 
  2. ^ "Cheryl Dunye | School of Cinema". Retrieved 2017-06-23. 
  3. ^ a b "Cheryl Dunye". School of Cinema, San Francisco State University. San Francisco State University. Retrieved 2015-03-05. 
  4. ^ Hardy, Ernest (2009-05-07), "Cheryl Dunye: Return of the Watermelon Woman", LA Weekly, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  5. ^ Dunye, Cheryl (1992), "Janine, (1990) & She Don't Fade (1991)", FELIX: A Journal of Media Arts and Communication (2), retrieved 2010-04-27 
  6. ^ Keough, Peter (1997-05-08), "Slice of life — The Watermelon Woman refreshes", The Phoenix, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Richardson, Matt (2011). "Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman.". Black Camera. doi:10.2979/blackcamera.2.2.100. Retrieved January 29, 2016. 
  8. ^ Moss, J. Jennings (April 1, 1997), "The NEA Gets Gay-bashed.", Advocate (730) 
  9. ^ Trudi, Perkins (June 1997), "Caution: She'll Make You Think!", Lesbian News (22.11) 
  10. ^ a b c Bryan-Wilson, Julia, and Cheryl Dunye. “Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue.” Art Journal, vol. 72, no. 2, 2013, pp. 82–89.,
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Michel, Frann (Summer 2007). "Eating the (M)Other: Cheryl Dunye’s Feature Films and Black Matrilineage.". Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge. Retrieved February 1, 2016. 
  12. ^, retrieved 2012-05-02  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Marcus, Lydia (2001-07-03), "Cell Out", The Advocate: 54, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l St John, Maria (Summer 2004). "" ‘Making Home/Making "Stranger’: An Interview with Cheryl Dunye."". Feminist Studies. Retrieved January 30, 2016. 
  15. ^ a b c d e WIlkinson, Kathleen (February 2002). "Arresting Her Audience". Lesbian News. Retrieved February 29, 2016. 
  16. ^ John, Maria St.; Dunye, Cheryl (2004-01-01). "Making Home/Making "Stranger": An Interview with Cheryl Dunye". Feminist Studies. 30 (2): 325–338. JSTOR 20458966. doi:10.2307/20458966. 
  17. ^ Harvey, Dennis (2004-01-11), "My Baby's Daddy", Variety, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  18. ^ a b Felperin, Leslie (2010-02-21), "The Owls", Variety, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  19. ^ Williams, Janette (2010-04-03), "Local filmmaker heading to Tribeca film fest", Pasadena Star-News, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  20. ^ a b Knegt, Peter (2010-03-22), "Tribeca All Access Sets 24 Projects For Seventh Edition", indieWire, retrieved 2010-04-27 
  21. ^ a b c d e f Juhasz, Alexandra. Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 291–304. 
  • Juhasz, Alexandra. Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video. 

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