Watermelon Woman: Lesbian Drama

It was only a matter of time before a woman of color made a lesbian-themed film. Carrying Troche's torch, Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman revolves around a black lesbian filmmaker who conducts research about the life of a 1930s actress known as “The Watermelon Woman”. Poking fun at various sacred cows in American culture, the film makes statements about the power of narrative and the ownership of history. Like Dunye's shorts (“The Potluck and the Passion”), the narrative is elliptical and circular, borrowing its format from Jim McBride's David Holtzman's Diary, particularly the ending, when viewers realize they have been watching a fake documentary.

The director was inspired by Melvin Van Peebles' The Watermelon Man, about an Archie Bunker type who wakes up black one day and his whole life is changed. Dunye was preparing a course on African-American women in film, when she read about Mable Hampton, Ma Rainey, and other artists on the fringe of the Harlem Renaissance and early Hollywood. Her lead figure, Cheryl, is a constructed character, partially based on Dunye's life.

For this film, Dunye worked for the first time with a lenser, Michelle Crenshaw. Coming from the video world, where she would wear 12 different hats, letting that duty go was hard. As she explained: “There's a certain look I get shooting by myself, a certain comfort and feel, but here, there were 20 crew people in the room.” Dunye was forced to give up the control and intimacy of video for the sake of better technical values.

The reaction to the film from certain members of the African-American community was virulent. A Washington Times article quoted black conservative anger, “how can the NEA blaspheme the black community with this gay stuff” referring to a $31,500 grant Dunye received to complete the film. For Dunye, the accusation was ridiculous, holding that the humor in her film allows “everyone a space to enter,” regardless of their history.