Review of “Watermelon Woman”

Dunye’s characters are at once humorous parodies and frightfully realistic portraits. She takes shots at black as well as white ethnocentrism, without losing sight of the pernicious institutionalization of the latter.

The black cop is as overenthusiastic about racial profiling as his white partner when they harass Cheryl for looking “suspicious” (standing on the sidewalk) and being in possession of what they say appears to be stolen property (her video equipment). These sequences are a bit over-the-top, but hardly farfetched.

Dunye has referred to The Watermelon Woman as a “Dunyementary.” The film is part narrative, part pseudo-documentary; semi-autobiographical and self-referential. The story-within-a-story with Dunye as the main character might seem self-indulgent or gimmicky except that she’s engaging and has a sense of humor about herself and her serious subject matter. As are the others, her own character is comically flawed.

Much of the film’s footage seems so realistic and unscripted that it makes you wonder whether the subjects are even aware they’re in a mockumentary. Some of the funniest bits involve Dunye approaching people on the street and interviewing them on camera about what they’ve heard about the woman known as the Watermelon Woman. And Dunye casts her own mother to play herself in a performance so convincing that it seems like she isn’t acting at all.

The worlds of fact and fiction intersect further when Cheryl refers to “Guin and Rose,” the women who made Go Fish, shortly before Guin herself is introduced as Diana. Another scene opens with a painfully humorous karaoke performance by V.S. Brodie, who played Eli Go Fish.

Cameos abound in Watermelon Woman, and several queer icons have bit parts in the film. Brian Freeman, member of the Pomo Afro Homos improv troupe, appears as a witty collector of black film memorabilia. Author/activist Sarah Schulman plays a humorless, borderline fascist member of a feminist archive collective, The Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (nice acronym, right?).

Douglas Crimp, Michelle Wallace and Cheryl Clarke also make appearances, and Dunye collaborated with Zoe Leonard and Douglas McKeown, respectively, to make the faux-archival photos and film of Fae and her contemporaries.

But the cameo that steals the show is motor-mouthed Camille Paglia‘s. The controversial cultural critic turns in a hilarious parody of herself that is so characteristically outrageous that Dunye has said festival-goers frequently asked her whether Paglia was aware of her own obnoxiousness.

Paglia goes as far as taking issue with black scholars’ take on the mammy figure and the significance of watermelon, which she appropriates as a symbol of her own heritage — going so far as to point out that it contains the colors of the Italian flag. The portrayal is so realistic that either Paglia has a healthy sense of humor about herself or she’s so brazen that she was truly just speaking her mind. Perhaps it’s a case of both.

The film’s epitaph is “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”

Dunye creates a fiction so captivatingly enigmatic that without that closing statement most viewers would probably run to Google Fae Richards as soon as the credits roll. And it’s worth mentioning that the credits for this film about a woman who was denied due credit, end with an enormously long list of people who took part in the film.

It’s also notable that a film that addresses racism and homophobia was denounced by one Senator Jesse Helms — preoccupied with the film’s single, graphic but tasteful and brief sex scene — as “flotsam floating down a sewer.”

If that isn’t the mark of quality queer cinema, what is?

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