While lesbian films have gotten slicker and better funded since the early-90s boom in 16mm, indie, experimental features, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman endures as a smart and sexy self-portrait of a young, black lesbian and her take on her world.
The film’s opening scene sets the stage for portraying two worlds that overlap but remain separate. Two black women are videotaping a wedding reception for a black groom and a white, Jewish bride where guests are cordial to each other but mostly keep to their own kind. They come together when the videographers line them up for a formal portrait, but then a white photographer swoops in to capitalize on the two women’s work — stepping into the frame with neither a qualm nor a clue to take still shots of the scene they arranged.
Even as the groups converge, one is pushed aside, and the pushers lack the awareness of their actions. The ambitious film delves into multiple themes: representations of black women in cinema, youthful struggles to balance pursuing goals and paying the bills, interracial relationships, and everyday racism and homophobia, for starters — with a love story thrown in to boot.
But the love story doesn’t overpower the film; it is passion-filled but ultimately kept in its place, much like the affair at its center.
Dunye plays a young filmmaker named Cheryl who works at a video store in Philadelphia (Dunye’s hometown) and has the aforementioned videography business on the side. But her real passion is researching and documenting the life of a black film actress from the ’30s billed only as “watermelon woman.”
Cheryl discovers that the woman, whose real name was Fae Richards, started out as a lounge singer in the vibrant African American club scene that flourished before the Depression, also starring in black-made films before being relegated to mammy roles once Hollywood took over.
More important, Cheryl discovers that Fae is more of a sister than she initially imagined. Not only was she a young black woman living in Philly and working to make a name for herself in film, but Fae turns out to be a lesbian too. And soon after learning that Fae had an ongoing affair with a white woman (the director of the Hollywood films she appeared in), Cheryl finds herself dating a white woman — a customer who picks her up at the video store.
The woman in question, Diana (Guinevere Turner), is not only white and rich but privileged in ways that surpass her own awareness.
From the start, Tamara (Valarie Walker) — Cheryl’s friend, coworker, business partner and sidekick — is relentless in her disapproval of the relationship. She is always trying to set Cheryl up with black women, none of whom Cheryl is attracted to. Tamara’s knee-jerk disdain for all things white puts Cheryl off.
But eventually Cheryl is equally turned off by the suspiciously high number of black women and men she learns Diana has dated.
And just as Fae’s longtime white lover put her in movies but wasn’t the ultimate love of her life, as Diana sets out to further Cheryl’s project she leads her to encounter the racism that makes a project like hers relevant in the first place, and gets herself kicked out of the picture.