Watermelon Man (1970): Melvin Van Peebles’ Pioneering Racial Satire

Melvin Van Peebles directed Watermelon Man, a pioneering racial comedy, starring Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D’Urville Martin, Kay Kimberley, Mantan Moreland, and Erin Moran.

Written by Herman Raucher, it tells the story of a bigoted 1960s white insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber, who wakes up one morning to find that he has become black.

The film’s premise was inspired by 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 he did not accept Columbia Pictures’ three-picture contract, instead developing the seminal indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

The music for Watermelon Man, written and performed by Van Peebles, was released on soundtrack album, which spawned the single “Love, That’s America”.

Jeff Gerber lives in suburban neighborhood with his seemingly liberal housewife Althea, who tolerates her husband’s character flaws. Every morning when Jeff wakes up, he goes under a tanning machine, hits the speedbag, drinks health drink, and races the bus to work on foot.

Jeff presents himself as happy-go-lucky 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 it is a dream, but to no avail. He tries taking shower to wash the “black” off him, but to no avail. When Althea walks into the bathroom, screaming in shock, he explains that the “Negro in the bathroom” is him.

At first, Jeff believes it’s the result of spending too much time tanning.  Afraid to go out of the house, he only ventures into the “colored part of town” in order to find a pharmacy to buy “the stuff used in order to make themselves look white.” His attempts to change his skin color fail.

Persuaded to get up and go to work, he is soon accused of robbery while running alongside the bus. The policeman assumes that, since he is black, he must have stolen something. During his lunch break, he makes appointment with his doctor who cannot explain Jeff’s condition. The doctor then suggests that Jeff would be more comfortable with black doctor.

Returning home, he finds Althea afraid to answer the phone. He  receives a call from a man who uses racial slurs. 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 and reassigns him to deal only with black customers.

He realizes that the people who had made the threatening phone calls are neighbors who offer him $50,000 for his home due to fear of property depreciation. Jeff manages to raise the price to $100,000. Althea sends the children to live with relatives and later leaves her husband. Jeff sleeps with the secretary but is repulsed by her objectification of him afterwards.

Finally accepting that he is black, Jeff resigns his regular job, buys an apartment building, and starts his own insurance company.

The last scene shows him practicing martial arts with black menial workers.

Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber
Estelle Parsons as Althea Gerber
Howard Caine as Mr. Townsend
D’Urville Martin as Bus Driver
Mantan Moreland as Counterman
Kay Kimberley as Erica
Kay E. Kuter Dr. Wainwright
Scott Garrett as Burton Gerber
Erin Moran as Janice Gerber
Irving Selbst as Mr. Johnson
Emil Sitka as Delivery Man
Karl Lukas as Policeman #2

Songwriter and then-burgeoning actor Paul Williams (credited as Paul H. Williams), makes a brief appearance as employment office clerk.