The Watermelon Woman


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Watermelon Woman
"This film is well aware of its own limitations: knows it can only pose the questions here, while answers will take time and belong, perhaps, to later generations."

The Watermelon Woman is many things. Romcom. Sharp social observation. Political commentary. A bit rough around the edges – but involving, revealing, challenging.

Superficially, it is the story of up and coming black lesbian film maker Cheryl – here played by writer and director Cheryl Dunye – as she seeks to break out of the tedium of her day job, dishing out videos to customers in a video rental store, and make a name for herself as a radical documentary maker.

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There are two principal story arcs. One, focused on Cheryl's day-to-day relationships, with friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) and newfound lover Diana (Guinevere Turner), poses questions about whether it is possible for two women to come together across the racial divide. Will Cheryl's friends allow it? In the end, is there still too much difference in culture, in expectation, for such a relationship to work?

The second comes in the form of a 'mockumentary' as the film follows Cheryl's attempts to uncover the true history of actress Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), famous for playing the 'Watermelon Woman' of the film's title. How she never quite made it to Hollywood's first rank, despite being a talented actress: because she was black. And how, behind the scenes, the biggest secret of them all remained unwritten: which was that Fae fell in love with and for a while had a relationship with Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz), who played the white female lead in several of her films.

Except, of course, it is not – as the credits make clear at the end – a true history. Neither Fae Richards nor the Watermelon Woman existed. This is a work of fiction: but so precise in its documentation of a faux past, which it locates within a much wider framework of truths about the role of black people in white cinema, that you end the film half believing it to be so.

At its core, the film pursues two themes. The first is a direct challenge to the narrative of integration: “Why can't I be happy fitting into their world?” demands one black woman playing a character in a film within this film. Good question. Because everyone else, 'real' or 'fictional' including the woman who slaps her for this sentiment, is busy promoting the opposite point of view. In the case of Martha's sister, for out and out racist reasons: there is no way my sister could have had a relationship with a black woman!

Elsewhere, though, within the nexus of Cheryl's friends, resistance to inter-racial relationships emerges from something deeper: a sense, perhaps, that Cheryl needs to find herself first before branching out. Concern, too, that any white person prepared to cross the divide is, at least in part, doing so for tourist reasons.

And the second? As Cheryl states in the closing credits: “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” There is much discussion in this film about what stories Cheryl should be telling. Is her first impulse, to focus on the “scandal” of an inter-racial relationship, the right one. Or is she herself sensationalising a serious issue, obscuring the bigger story of her black sisters by focussing on an episode that centres a white person?

These are big asks and this film is well aware of its own limitations: knows it can only pose the questions here, while answers will take time and belong, perhaps, to later generations.

Originally released in 1996, this film is starting to show its age. Quite apart from the central setting – who now remembers the ubiquitous video rental store? - it feels, from the outside, as though we have moved forward in respect of some of the film's central preoccupations. Not to resolution; but at least to having developed and expanded on conversations that, in the Nineties, were just beginning. On the other hand, on some issues, such as police treatment of law-abiding black people, nothing much seems to have changed.

At just 70 minutes, this film is short by modern standards. But it packs much into those minutes – including an interview with feminist commentator Camille Paglia - and if nothing else you will be more aware of the tightrope that any film-maker addressing these issues must walk.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2018
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The Watermelon Woman packshot
A young black lesbian in Philadelphia tries to track down a once legendary actress.
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Director: Cheryl Dunye

Writer: Cheryl Dunye

Starring: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, Cheryl Clarke

Year: 1996

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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