WATERMELON WOMAN, THE
(director/writer: Cheryl Dunye; cinematographer: Michelle Crenshaw; editor: Annie Taylor; music: Bill Coleman; cast: Cheryl Dunye (Herself), Valerie Walker (Tamara), Irene Dunye (Mom), Guinevere Turner (Diana Rawlings), Lisa Marie Bronson (Fae Richards/The Watermelon Woman), Cheryl Clarke (June Walker), Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz), Shelley Olivier (Annie Heath), Christopher Ridenhour (Bob, video store boss), Camille Paglia (real-life feminist commentator); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Barry Swimar/Alexandra Juhasz; First-fun Features; 1996)
“It’s a refreshingly tasty lesbian flick.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A keen tongue and cheek social observation film about a curious 25-year-old black lesbian Philadelphia video store clerk by day and in her free time an aspiring documentary filmmaker, Cheryl Dunye (“The Owls”/”Mommy is Coming”), who not only stars but is the writer-director in her debut feature. It blends together the story of Cheryl making the fake documentary and the events in her every day life, such as the pick-up of a white lesbian customer in the store, Diana (Guinevere Turner); her friendship with her sassy fellow black lesbian video clerk Tamara (Valerie Walker); and it follows the boyish looking Cheryl’s everyday work routines. The main story has Cheryl putting all her energy into doing the research to make a fake documentary on a little known actress from the 1930s referred to in the film credits as The Watermelon Woman.
Cheryl catches a fictional 1930s video from her store called Plantation Memories and is enthralled by the black actress playing the mammy on the plantation. She uncovers that the actress’s real name was Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), and reasons why someone so beautiful and talented never made it big in Hollywood was because of her skin color. She also uncovers that Fae was a Philadelphia-based nightclub singer and had a secret affair with the white director of the film, Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz).
In Philly, for good, after her movie career crashed, Fae has a longtime affair with a black woman (Cheryl Clarke), who supported her for the rest of her life but resented her affair with the white woman director. It’s pointed out that Tammy also resents Cheryl’s affair with the white woman Diana.
Cheryl sadly notes that in early Hollywood there were few women directors and no black stars.
By making this faux documentary and a film within a film, Cheryl believes that sometimes you must create your own history because there’s little chance someone else will do it for you. The vibrant Cheryl finds that her life doesn’t seem that different from Fae’s as far as black lesbians having much of a chance to make it, even in a more liberal Hollywood. Cheryl acts as a playful provocateur, calling for Hollywood to change and offer women, lesbians and blacks more opportunities.
The low-budget film is funny, enlightening and well-conceived. Though comical at times, it’s serious about examining issues of race, gender, and sexuality. There are not too many lesbian pics like this free-wheeling one that plead so earnestly for more Hollywood visibility for their fellow marginalized outcasts of society.
It’s a refreshingly tasty lesbian flick, one that imagines through its fictional character what Hollywood life was for those like the Queenie actress in GWTW.
REVIEWED ON 7/5/2020 GRADE: B+