When Cheryl Dunye made The Watermelon Woman in the mid-’90s, it was the only feature-length film about lesbian women of color — ever. Other films might have had Sapphic subtext or touch on lesbianish themes, but Dunye wrote, directed and starred in the mockumentary about a black lesbian (named Cheryl, played by Cheryl) who worked at a movie store by day and on her own films by night. Specifically she was working on a film about a black actress and singer named Fae Richards who she finds out had a sexual relationship with a white female director named Martha Page.
While delving into the secret life of Fae, Cheryl interviews a film expert, a lesbian archivist (played by Sarah Schulman, who would go on to write The Owls with Dunye) and her own mother, who was alive at the time that Fae was part of the underground Philadelphia music scene. Meanwhile, Cheryl meets Diana (Guinevere Turner), who comes in to rent some movies at the video store. Diana ends up introducing Cheryl to Martha Page’s sister, who refuses to acknowledge that she was gay or involved with Fae in a romantic fashion.
Despite the fact that neither Fae or Martha are real people, Cheryl’s search for a part of history that she feels is missing from history books or greater parts of society is very real. Black and queer histories are largely ignored and buried, but the people that were involved in them keep them alive in their own photographs, stories and memories, which is what Cheryl comes to rely on. The time period in which a Fae or Martha would live really did exist, and the ’20s and ’30s were ripe with a culture not exhibited in many other places, much less feature films. There was nowhere else you’d hear talk of “stone butches” on screen.
The film also deals with Cheryl’s relationship, as her friend/roommate/coworker Tamara is not thrilled that Cheryl is dating a white woman. Tamara thinks Cheryl wants to “be black” and Cheryl is “acting white,” which puts a huge strain on their friendship.
The Watermelon Woman won the Teddy Award at the Berlinale Film Festival and was part of a seminal time in LGBT film history. It came just two years after Guinevere and Rose Troche‘s Go Fish, which also featured many women of color, and helped the careers of Cheryl and Guinevere both, who went on to create several more pivotal queer films including Mommy is Coming, Chasing Amy and Itty Bitty Titty Committee.
The fact that films like Pariah, She Hate Me and Mississippi Damned exist is a true testament to The Watermelon Woman and the work of Cheryl Dunye. If you have yet to see this film, it’s streaming on Netflix. Now’s your chance.