July 27, 2011

Queer Review: The Watermelon Woman (1996)

The Watermelon Woman
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Writer: Cheryl Dunye
Cast: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, Camille Paglia, Cheryl Clarke

The debut feature of Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman is a mockumentary that examines the history of black woman in Holywood through the prism of one fictional actress, 'The Watermelon Woman' (Lisa Marie Bronson).

Cheryl Dunye, playing herself, is making a video project on a black "Mammy" actress "The Watermelon Woman" who appeared in 1930's features. As Cheryl goes about her research, she finds out that The Watermelon Woman's real name was Fae Richards and that she had an intimate affair with a white female director Martha Page. While Cheryl is happy with the news that Fae was a lesbian, her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) is less thrilled with Cheryl's new girlfriend, Diana (Guinevere Turner) who is white.

The Queering
Charming and funny, The Watermelon Woman examines the topics of racial, gender, and sexual identity through the talented lens of Cheryl Dunye. What I really liked though, was how Cheryl is able to include a high degree of thematic complexity regarding the titular fictional character. Cheryl never presents us with a definitive version of Fae Richards. We are shown versions of the truth regarding Fae, but no one point of view is given greater weight. One segment has real life cultural critic Camille Paglia (playing herself) presenting an interesting academic feminist take on Fae. June Walker (Cheryl Clarke), Fae's partner of 20 years, criticizes Martha, as well as Cheryl's obsession with Fae's affair with the white director. The funniest segment however, comes when Cheryl tries to do research at the all volunteer CLIT Institute.

There is also some parallelism between Fae and Cheryl. In addition to both of them being black lesbians, Cheryl and Fae's friends both take umbrage with them dating white woman. I'm not sure why that attitude even exists, but this was the second movie I have seen recently that featured an interracial relationship that was condemned by black characters. The other movie being Far From Heaven.

On the technical side, it is clear that The Watermelon Woman was shot on a low budget. The video is visibly grainy and the editing could charitably be called "rough". As for the acting, though, I would be more critical except not only did the cast lack professional experience, the acting is never so bad as to become distracting.

However, the poor film quality does little to diminish Dunye's passion for the subject matter. In many ways, despite some extreme differences between the projects, I was strongly reminded of Born in Flames as both are low budget films that examine issues of race, gender, and sexuality as a single continuum.

Strongly recommended. The Watermelon Woman succeeds at the difficult task of presenting a compelling, thematically complex, and yet also entertaining story.

The Rating


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