One of the freshest, most inventive American film comedies of the 1990s, The Watermelon Woman was written and directed by Cheryl Dunye, who plays the lead role, Cheryl, a black lesbian Philadelphian who videographs weddings (“urban realism”) and is one of the counter persons at a video rental shop. Cheryl has turned detective to investigate an obscure Hollywood actress who, it turns out, was also a black lesbian Philadelphian. The subject of the film that Cheryl is shooting in her spare time, this 1930s actress who was billed as “The Watermelon Woman” becomes the star of Cheryl’s life as she discovers more about her—Cheryl’s own mother remembers seeing this person sing at local clubs—and unearths parallels between them.
This film has such a liberated air! However, for all the delight it generates it is essentially serious. Its black-and-white “archival material” (film clips, photographs), by which we ourselves glimpse Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman, has been invented by Dunye; there never was a Watermelon Woman! (Which makes interviewee Camille Paglia’s analysis spinning off her doubly hilarious.) Cheryl falls into an interracial relationship after learning that Fae’s partner was the “big” white Hollywood director Martha Page—Dorothy Arzner, I guess. Far more important than this question of influence is Dunye’s reflection on the availability of role models for segments of a minority community—minorities within minorities—in U.S. culture and society.
Equally important is a matter that arises from the cheeky form that Dunye has devised for her film. How much do American blacks know about themselves independent of white society and media? Tracing Fae back to her black community is a way of reclaiming a black soul from the white culture that had appropriated her and kept her on the periphery of notice.
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