Selected by DeBria Robinson
Film Discussion: Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 6 PM EST
Two black women lean against a retail counter and talk about girls. It’s the 90s, so they are wearing overalls, enormous silk shirts, chokers and chunky earrings. Both have neatly shaved heads. Tamara wants Cheryl to go out with her friend Yvette, and Cheryl demurs—she finds Yvette uptight. Soon their boss emerges from the back of the store, and tells them to get back to work.
This is the opening of Cheryl Dunye’s ambitious first film, 1996’s The Watermelon Woman, which has recently been remastered for the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release. The movie follows Cheryl, played by Dunye, as she attempts to make a documentary about Faye Richards, better known as the Watermelon Woman: a gay, black 1930s actress whose roles as mammies and housemaids did not do justice to her elusive and complex life. In the process, Cheryl works her day job at a video rental store, begins a relationship with a white woman, and learns more about black women’s history—in film, in the gay community, and in her native Philadelphia—than she ever anticipated.
Dunye made The Watermelon Woman on a shoestring budget of $300,000—about one tenth of which came from an NEA grant. The film received limited attention when it was originally released in the U.S., but that didn’t stop it from generating controversy when Michigan Republican Pieter Hoekstra cited it as inappropriate use of government funds. He tried unsuccessfully to get his colleagues in Congress to deduct Dunye’s $31,500 grant from the NEA budget, citing NEA funding for a series of gay and lesbian films that “most Americans would find offensive” and referring to The Watermelon Woman specifically as “patently offensive and possibly pornographic.” He seems to have objected to the film’s sex scene, an oblique, 20-second affair between Cheryl and her white love interest, Diana, that looks adorably tame by today’s standards. You can see the outline of Dunye’s stomach and part of a nipple; the whole thing is set to a soundtrack that sounds like Melissa Etheridge but isn’t.
This kind of reaction might exemplify why The Watermelon Woman is such a unique film. Black lesbians exist at the crossroads of three of America’s most persistent iniquities: they are black, and women, and gay. Dunye’s film is a monument to her own love of black film history, but it is also a look into the ways that we uncover the histories of marginalized people, people who were unable, because of access or because of taboo, to document themselves.
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Runtime: 1 hr 30 mins