By Cassandra Nava, News Editor
Photo Courtesy of First Run Features
With its unconventional pace and humorous characters, “The Watermelon Woman” provides an interesting look into the lives of traditionally marginalized groups thanks to the direction of Cheryl Dunye, the first openly lesbian Black writer and director to create a feature length film.
This independent film follows video store clerks Cheryl (Dunye) and her best friend Tamara (Valerie Walker) as they navigate the city of Philadelphia and the queer scene. Dunye is a documentary filmmaker playing a fictional version of herself. Her documentary revolves around the search for the identity of a Black mammy typecast actress from the 1930s and 1940s credited only as the Watermelon Woman. Cheryl’s ideas of race and sexuality become complicated when she embarks on a new relationship with a white woman named Diana (Guinevere Turner).
The offbeat comedy in this new wave queer classic is typical to ‘90s films, with the nihilistic and carefree perspective. The movie-within-a-movie aspect of this film keeps viewers on their feet, with constant shifts in tone created by interspersing bits and pieces of Cheryl’s documentary (also titled “The Watermelon Woman”) along with the actual movie. This unique momentum mirrors the momentum of Cheryl’s life, as the hunt for the true identity of the Watermelon Woman parallels Cheryl's tumultuous search for her identity.
Dunye cleverly points out the racism in Hollywood by highlighting the anonymity Black actors faced then. She created a fictional old-school Black actress to be the obsession of a modern Black woman because she was desperate for the representation. While narrating her documentary, Cheryl explains that she wants to find out not only about the Watermelon Woman’s acting career, but about her personal life too — similar to how white celebrities are treated.
Through constant research and interviews, Cheryl is excited to find out the name and sexuality of the Watermelon Woman, who is identified as Fae Richards. Richards was also a “sapphic sister,” creating a more personal connection between the two. Upon realizing this, Cheryl looks into the camera of her documentary exclaiming, “I guess we have a thing or two in common, Miss Richards: the movies and women!”
Richards’ famous interracial relationship is an obvious reflection to Cheryl’s relationship with Diana. Cheryl finds herself questioning her choices when her friends ask why she would want to be in a relationship with a “wannabe Black girl.” Diana provides a hilarious example of colorblindness in America stating things like, “I’ve had three black boyfriends,” as if it's an accomplishment. Diana’s flawed character is similar to what we see today, with white people patting themselves on the back for not being racist, while vainly choosing to ignore the reality of their different experiences.
Juggling heavy themes like race and acceptance with lighter comedic moments makes this a well-rounded film about the search for identity — especially what that identity looks like for Black women.
“The Watermelon Woman” is still relevant even today, nearly 25 years later, because, sadly, there is still an obvious lack of gay representation in Hollywood. Exploring the marginalization of gay Black women allowed Dunye to showcase their lives in America — then and now.