The Watermelon Woman
|The Watermelon Woman|
Original film poster
|Directed by||Cheryl Dunye|
|Produced by||Alexandra Juhasz|
|Written by||Cheryl Dunye|
|Music by||Paul Shapiro|
|Edited by||Cheryl Dunye|
|Distributed by||First Run Features|
The Watermelon Woman is a 1996 American romantic comedy-drama film written, directed, and edited by Cheryl Dunye. It stars Dunye as Cheryl, a young black lesbian working a day job in a video store while trying to make a film about a black actress from the 1930s known for playing the stereotypical "mammy" roles relegated to black actresses during the period. It was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian and is considered a landmark in New Queer Cinema.
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, modern day mammies. There needs to be a focus that gets them working, getting some of those Academy Awards like they should." The film’s title is a play on the Melvin Van Peebles’s film The Watermelon Man (1970).
The Watermelon Woman was made on a budget of $300,000, financed by a $31,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a fundraiser, and donations from friends of Dunye. The photographic Fae Richards Archive, documenting the fictional actress' life, was created by New York City-based photographer Zoe Leonard. Made up of 78 images, the collection later was exhibited in galleries and as a book. Some of the photos were auctioned off as a fundraiser to fund the film's production.
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.
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, saying "our stories have never been told." The story explores the difficulty in navigating archival sources that either excludes or ignores black lesbians working in Hollywood, particularly that of actress Fae Richards whose character bore the name that provides the title for the film. The film also features a number of appearances by LGBT art figures such as Cheryl Clarke, Camille Paglia, David Rakoff, Sarah Schulman and others.
The production team decided against going to the Library of Congress to obtain materials and license them due to the costs, so instead Dunye and Zoe Leonard created new footage meant to resemble video from the 1930s and had an author of plays, Ira Jeffries, take additional photographs in the same style.
Criticism of NEA funding
On March 3, 1996, Jeannine DeLombard reviewed The Watermelon Woman for Philadelphia City Paper, describing the sex scene between Cheryl and Diana as "the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid". On June 14, Julia Duin wrote an article for The Washington Times, quoting DeLombard's review and questioning the $31,500 grant given to Dunye by the NEA.
Representative Peter Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee's United States House Education Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, also read DeLombard's review. 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.'" A spokesperson for Hoekstra said that he had no problem with gay content, just those that contained explicit sex. Because of this controversy, the NEA restructured itself by awarding grants to specific projects rather than giving funding straight to arts groups for disbursement.
Cheryl is a young, African American lesbian who works in a video store in Philadelphia with her friend Tamara. They earn extra money by making professional home videos for people. Cheryl becomes interested in films from the 1930s and 40s which feature Black actresses. She notices that these actresses are often not credited. She watches a film called Plantation Memories with a Black actress who is credited simply as "The Watermelon Woman". Cheryl decides to make a documentary about the Watermelon Woman and find out more about her life.
Tamara tries to set Cheryl up with her friend Yvette, but Cheryl is not interested. Cheryl meets a white woman in the store called Diana who, to Tamara's annoyance, flirts with Cheryl.
Cheryl starts interviewing members of the public, asking them if they have heard of the Watermelon Woman. She interviews her mother who does not remember the name, but recognises a photograph of her. She tells Cheryl that she used to hear the Watermelon Woman singing in clubs in Philadelphia. Tamara's mother tells Cheryl to get in contact with Lee Edwards, a man who has done a lot of research into Black films. Cheryl and Tamara go to see Lee, and he tells them about 1920s and 30s Black culture in Philadelphia. He explains to them that in those days, Black women usually played domestic servants.
Cheryl meets her mother's friend Shirley, who turns out to be a lesbian. Shirley tells her that the Watermelon Woman's name was Fae Richards, that she was a lesbian too, and that she used to sing in clubs "for all us stone butches". She says that Fae was always with Martha Page, the white director of Plantation Memories.
When Cheryl and Tamara get caught ordering video tapes under Diana's name, Diana takes the tapes and tells Cheryl that she will have to come to her home to collect them. Cheryl goes to Diana's house, stays for dinner, and watches some of the tapes with her, telling her about her project. They have sex, and Cheryl decides that although Diana is not her usual type of woman, she likes being with her.
Cheryl meets cultural critic Camille Paglia who tells her about the Mammy archetype, saying that it represented a goddess figure. Cheryl goes to the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT), and finds photographs of Fae Richards, including one given by Fae to a June Walker. With Diana's help, Cheryl manages to contact Martha Page's sister who denies that Martha was a lesbian.
As Cheryl and Diana grow closer, Tamara makes it clear that she dislikes Diana and disapproves of their relationship. She accuses Cheryl of wanting to be white, and Diana of having a fetish for Black people.
Cheryl telephones June Walker, learning that she was Fae's partner for 20 years. They arrange to meet, but June is taken to hospital and leaves a letter for Cheryl instead. In the letter she says that she is angry with Martha Page, that Martha had nothing to do with Fae's life. She urges Cheryl to tell their history.
Having separated from Diana, and fallen out with Tamara, Cheryl finishes her project, never managing to make more contact with June.
- Cheryl Dunye as Cheryl
- Guinevere Turner as Diana
- Valarie Walker as Tamara
- Lisa Marie Bronson as Fae 'The Watermelon Woman' Richards
- Cheryl Clarke as June Walker
- Irene Dunye as herself
- Brian Freeman as Lee Edwards
- Camille Paglia as herself
- Sarah Schulman as CLIT archivist
- V.S. Brodie as Karaoke Singer
- Robert Reid-Pharr
The Watermelon Woman premiered at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival and played at several other international film festivals during 1996 and 1997, including the New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, L.A. Outfest, the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the Créteil International Women's Film Festival, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival.
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.
The film was released in the United States on March 5, 1997, distributed by First Run Features. It was released on DVD on September 5, 2000. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Metrograph in New York City screened the film for a week in 2016.
Critical reviews of the film were generally positive. Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film "both stimulating and funny". He praised Dunye for her "talent and open-heartedness" and enjoyed the film's moments of comedy. He said that the film "lets you find your own way to its central message about cultural history and the invisibility of those shunted to the margins." Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthie Stein had a similar opinion to Holden, writing that, despite the seriousness of the film's topics, it "never takes itself too seriously." She praised Dunye's "engaging personality" and said that she "has infused [the film] with a lightness that seems to match her spirit." The Advocate's Anne Stockwell wrote that "this rollicking, sexy movie never gets self-important." She praised the "footage" of Fae Richards and Zoe Leonard's work on the photo archive of the fictional actress as "one of the film's joys".
Emanuel Levy rated the film as a "B", writing that it was "only a matter of time before a woman of color made a lesbian film." He said that while "[p]oking fun at various sacred cows in American culture", it "makes statements about the power of narrative and the ownership of history." In a review for The Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten called the film "smart, sexy [...] funny, historically aware, and stunningly contemporary."
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