Review: The Watermelon Woman (1996) – 20th Anniversary Restored

The Watermelon Woman is a cult classic film amongst the LGBT+ community. A landmark film directed, written, edited and starring Cheryl Duyne, The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian. The stimulating and open-hearted film follows Cheryl back in 1993 on her quest to make a film about a black actress playing the stereotypical ‘mammy’ role in a movie she saw from the 1930s. The aspiring filmmaker at the time attempts to bring out the history of black lesbians in cinematic history because “our stories have never been told”. Exploring the difficulty and nonexistent history of black actress and queer black women in Hollywood during the 1930’s time period, Cheryl main interest is on actress Fae Richards. The film’s title is a play on the Melvin Van Peebles’s film The Watermelon Man (1970). Released in 1996, the film received critical acclaim winning Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In the spirit of Black History Month UK, Peccadillo Pictures are commemorating Cheryl for her ground-breaking work as a black filmmaker and LGBT activist by delivering a special restored edition of The Watermelon Woman on DVD which includes three of her short films – Greetings from Africa, The Potluck and The Passion, and She Don’t Fade. The film is screening in selected cinemas as part of Peccadillo Picture’s film programme for LGBT History Month in February 2019.

The film is set in Philadelphia, which sees young black aspiring filmmaker Cheryl and her friend Tamara who both work in a video rental store and make extra money on the side by making professional home videos for other people, adamant on making a documentary about a black actress uncredited properly in a film called Plantation Memories. Only referred to as “The Watermelon Woman”, Cheryl becomes interested in the watermelon woman and wants to find out more about her and her life. Embarking on a journey to uncover her identity, Cheryl researches different black history films & black actresses from the 1930’s discovering that many of the women were never credited and often left out. Whilst working, Cheryl meets Diana, a white woman who comes in the store. It’s clear that both Cheryl & Diana are interested in each other which is brought to light as the movie continues.

     Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl) and Guinevere Turner (Diana) in The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Continuing to discover the true identity of the watermelon woman, Cheryl interviews members of the public asking if they know or have heard of her before. She turns to her mother for information who happens to recognises her face from a photograph from years back as she remembers hearing the watermelon woman singing in bars and clubs around Philadelphia. After reaching out to Lee Edwards, a man who collects movie posters from that time period, Cheryl and Tamara go to meet Lee for more information. After informing them on the 1920’s/1930’s black culture in Philadelphia, he explains that it was common in those days for black women to play domestic servants because the mammy role was the only thing available in Hollywood at the time.

Cheryl then meets Shirley, a friend of her mothers who is a lesbian. Shirley reveals the true identity of the watermelon woman whose name is Fae Richards, informing Cheryl that she was, in fact, a lesbian having sung in clubs for “all us stone bitches”. Capturing Cheryl’s interest, Shirley reveals that Fae spent most of her time alongside Martha Page who was the white female director behind Plantation Memories. Creating a story for black women in early cinema, she encounters with several individuals who make an appearance throughout the film such as activist Camille Paglia, writer David Rakoff, lesbian poet Cheryl Clarke and many more. Heading to the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT), Cheryl finds photographs of Fae, one from a June Walker who Cheryl later finds out was Fae’s partner for 20 years. Upon agreeing to meet June, she is taken to hospital and leaves a letter for Cheryl which reveals that she is angry with Martha Page revealing that Martha had nothing to do with Fae’s life asking Cheryl to tell their story. Cheryl ultimately concludes the project having broken up with Diana and fallen out with Tamara.

Throughout The Watermelon Woman, the warmth and passion you feel from Cheryl’s character to discover the identity of The Watermelon Woman sends you on a personal journey into knowing about the black actresses from that time period. Cheryl one quoted during the release of the film:

“It’s going to take more than just my film for that picture to be corrected, there needs to be more work, there needs to be more black protagonists. There are a lot of talented actresses that have nothing to do but mammy roles again and again, modem day mammies. There needs to be a focus that gets them working, getting some of those Academy Awards like they should.” – Cheryl Dunye.

Film Rating: 4/5.

The Watermelon Woman is released by Peccadillo Pictures on DVD on 28 October and also available now in UK on VOD.

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