With uplifting and elegant classical string music in the background, guests at a garden wedding reception are wearing gold or pastel and flowery dresses with floppy hats and Black, formal suits and some with yarmulkes. Yet, something is not right. It is awkward as if someone forcedly pushed a puzzle piece in the wrong spot. Not everyone is smiling and enjoying this happy union of the two families. The camera captures some uncomfortable faces. Some guests are awkwardly standing away from each other, while others are disapprovingly staring at the camera and other guests. The stark contrast becomes visible as the Jewish bride’s family members and the Black groom’s family members stand together to take a group photograph – and they smile. All with lively and delicate classical music still playing.
OVID.TV Presents a Cult-Favorite LGBTQ+ Film
How did we arrive at this wedding scene?
In THE WATERMELON WOMAN, we follow Cheryl, an aspiring Black lesbian filmmaker played by the director Cheryl Dunye herself. When she is not filming, she works as a clerk at a video rental store with her friend Tamara, also a Black lesbian. She does not know what she wants to film yet . She does know that her film has to be about Black women because “our stories have never been told.”
One day, she came across an old film called Plantation Memories in which she finds a Black mammy comforting a White lady waiting for her lover to come back from the war.
Enamored by the Black actress’s dreamy and soulful eyes, Cheryl wants to learn more about her but finds that the actress was only billed as THE WATERMELON WOMAN. She decides to make a documentary about her, but the search for knowledge is difficult with almost non-existing archives about Black women in film, let alone Black lesbians in film.
Cheryl quickly becomes obsessed with this mysterious beauty. She learns that the actress’s name is Faith Richardson or Fae Richards in Hollywood. Fae was in a relationship with a White female director, Martha Page, who had mostly cast Fae in stereotypical mammy and servant roles.
We soon discover strong parallels between Fae and Cheryl. Cheryl begins to see a beautiful White woman named Diana, who is likewise naïve about microaggressions and reality. While living in a luxury loft without a particular job or interest, but seemingly ample to get an education, Diana attempts to establish her non-racist bonafides. She says, “I’ve had three Black boyfriends...Actually, my father’s sister’s first husband was an ex-Panther..." Cheryl laughs and Diana questions why. It’s scenes like this that make THE WATERMELON WOMAN so refreshing, relevant, and revealing, in this writer’s view.
As the story proceeds, Cheryl faces many questions and criticisms, instead of wanted enlightenment. We are along for the ride as so many of her relationships – especially with family and Black friends -- fall apart. One says, “I was so mad that you even mentioned the name, Martha Page. Why do you even want to include a White woman in a movie on Fae’s life? Don’t you know that she had nothing to do with how people should remember Fae?”
THE WATERMELON WOMAN Never Loses Its Authenticity
THE WATERMELON WOMAN uncovers the history of the marginalized people – from the Blacks and women to the LGBTQ+ community – in Pennsylvania and Hollywood. Even more than 20 years after its release, THE WATERMELON WOMAN lively and wittily engages us in a conversation about race and sexuality in its mockumentary-style blurring distinction between reality and fiction. The film even features a renowned film critic, Camille Paglia, who humorously plays a stereotypical White film theorist appropriating Black culture. Although it explores heavy and charged topics about race and sexuality, the film preserves its jaunty and authentic spirit, in this writer’s view. The film ends with a telling statement that truly grabs--- “Sometimes you have to create your own history. THE WATERMELON WOMAN is fiction.”
This film will likely appeal to those interested in learning more about the marginalized people’s experiences and stories. Anyone who enjoys a satirical mockumentary will appreciate the film as well. The humor might not always be obvious, so people looking for a simple laugh might not enjoy the film.
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Writer: Cheryl Dunye
About the Author: Yoo Jung Hah
Yoo Jung Hah is a recent History graduate from the University of Chicago. Originally from South Korea, Yoo Jung has worked in education nonprofits in Chicago and a public advocacy nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. During her free time, she enjoys attending cultural and art events, painting, and cooking.