By it’s very nature, The Watermelon Woman is centered outside the confines of mainstream filmmaking. It tells the story of Cheryl, a black lesbian filmmaker attempting to make a documentary on an actress known only as the Watermelon Woman. Writer and director Cheryl Dunye, who also plays the lead, uses this search for the Watermelon Woman as a way to create a history for queer black women in film, a history largely ignored or narrowed by the mainstream, which has rarely afforded black folks (let alone queer black women) the opportunity to tell their own stories. The fact that this film from 1996 is largely credited as being the first feature film directed by a black lesbian is proof of this dismissal.
Cheryl first discovers the Watermelon Woman while watching a 1930s black and white film called Plantation Memories. In it, the Watermelon Woman portrays a mammy figure. The “mammy” represents a long-running archetype stemming from when black slave women would be the nannies to white children. It has come to define black female characters in many films, including modern ones. The mammy is essentially a caretaker, solely around to provide maternal service to the white characters. It’s such a limited role that has unfortunately been utilized to a stereotypical degree, perhaps best exemplified by Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
In The Watermelon Woman, these mammies are never vilified. Dunye treats the archetype almost objectively, refusing to cave into its vision of the world and instead to dig deeper into whom these black actresses were. All over the film are different viewpoints on the mammy. Lee, a gay black man and film lover, explains to Cheryl the history of black film and black characters on film, pointing out that many black actresses could only act as domestic servants. Camille Paglia, in a self-parody, waxes poetic on how the mammy represents a maternal goddess figure, and has been so maligned in recent times. Even Cheryl herself and her friend Tamara (another black lesbian) seem confounded by the mammy, at times dismissive of her.
Unable to find the answers from her mother, Lee, or academia (with its white focus), Cheryl gets much of the story of the Watermelon Woman from queer sources. Her mother’s friend, an older black lesbian, is able to give Cheryl a name: Fae Richards, a singer and actress who performed in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It is here that Cheryl is told that the actress who she has been extensively researching was “one of the family”; that she, like Cheryl, was a black lesbian. This idea of family and of shared identities pervades the film, even if it is never directly acknowledged. Cheryl is a part of many families: she’s a lesbian, a black lesbian, a black woman, a woman, and a filmmaker (to name a few). It’s this myriad of identities within one person that Dunye wants to explore, focusing on the intersection of identities at the core of a person. With Fae’s naming, she is once more a living woman, a historical figure. Likewise in the movie, we see more scenes of her from other films and from pictures, a dramatic change from only seeing her mammy role in Plantation Dreams.
The full story would of course come from these queer resources, especially Cheryl’s mother’s friend Shirley and from the lesbian archive CLIT (which, although still white-centered, does provide a sharp contrast to the lack of a queer black female presence in white academia and libraries). The history of queer black women like Fae Richards can only truly be told by queer black women, especially those who were there, like Shirley. Although still centered on Fae, Cheryl’s documentary becomes larger, providing a glimpse into black queer women in Philadelphia, in Harlem, in Hollywood, and in mammies since film began. In some ways, Dunye creates this history in order to bypass the constraints historically placed on queer black women by mainstream narratives, those lenses of the patriarchy, heteronormativity, colonialism, and above all else, white supremacy. As the film sharply jumps back and forth from Cheryl’s documentary of the Watermelon Woman and of Cheryl’s own life, a new story unfolds able to comprehend the identities of both women.
The film paints a picture of a life led, but never quite fulfilled, for Fae. Cheryl is told Fae’s story from her longtime lover, June, another black woman. Fae was never a part of many films beyond the mammy roles. And, although a part of a black studio, films centered on black folk and black life fell out of fashion, and much of it faded into a mainstream ignorance of this black film history. It’s perhaps best exemplified by Cheryl’s interview with three white students who don’t know anything of black presence on film, one even going so far as to say “we haven’t gotten to the 1960s yet,” as if that is the point in which black people produced and appeared in film in a significant way. Fae eventually left the film industry, attempted a singing career, and lived out of the spotlight with her partner June, the only woman worthy of relating the Watermelon Woman’s history to Cheryl.
The Watermelon Woman is ultimately a look at how important it is to have a history of one’s family. For Cheryl, it meant not just a history of queer black women, but a history of black filmmakers, of black actresses, and ultimately of those brushed to the sides. With her film, Dunye builds a family tree connecting Fae to herself, creating a history that has long been fractured and ignored.
Dunye crafts this history through her intimate understanding of how powerful the intersection of fiction and documentary can be, just as powerful as the intersection of the many aspects of Dunye’s identity. She reaches out across time and space and holds hands with a woman she’s never met, a woman who never even existed. For Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman, is entirely fiction: the film is entirely fiction, utilizing documentary embellishes in order to create a history for black queer women. Likewise, Dunye is able to capture the impact films have on history. Films are history told as truth, and because of the focus on straight white men, much of the world ends up catering to a straight white male history, ignoring and constricting any individuals who pose a radical threat to this “norm.” The history of American film not only reflects personal histories and the country’s histories, but also creates them. Cheryl Dunye knows, and teaches through The Watermelon Woman, how vital it is for black queer woman to contribute to the film history by telling their own stories.
- Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is actually a very interesting companion to The Watermelon Woman, which arguably influenced Bamboozled.
- This film is very much an extension of Third Cinema, which makes sense considering how politicized queer women of color’s bodies are and historically have been.
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