(Written on the initial release of THE WATERMELON WOMAN 20 years ago,).
The opening sequence of THE WATERMELON WOMAN gives us a sly look at the social state of American affairs. An African-America lesbian is filming a heterosexual wedding. The bride is white, the groom is black and the wedding party is oh so very civilized. But look closely. Intermingling is minimal and there are quick shots of curious, wary sidelong glances. It’s the perfect set-up for writer/director Cheryl Dunyé’s sweetly sardonic, pretension-busting look at an African-American lesbian filmmaker negotiating our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-sexual, multi-multi world.
She plays Cheryl, a video store employee with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. She’s also newly obsessed with a black actress from the 1930s known only as the Watermelon Woman. By researching who the Watermelon Woman was, she not only finds a film project, but also a way to delve into her roots as a filmmaker, an African-American, a woman, and a lesbian. Meanwhile, she’s also starting up a romance with a rich white woman (Guinivere Turner), much to the consternation of her friends.
Dunyé has a wonderfully expressive face. Whether gazing lovestruck at a customer, musing directly to the camera about her idiosyncratic life, or reacting with a mixture of disbelief and wonder to the way her best friend disses everyone in sight, she’s engaging and infinitely watchable. She’s just as adept behind the camera. A visit to the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology, for example, exquisitely skewers the fascism that can sprout in warm, supportive nurturing collectives.
Whether the Watermelon Woman actually existed or not, the discussions of what her life might have been like point up some interesting parallels with events in Cheryl’s life. Those parallels show the interesting ways in which things have changed in the last 60 years, and have stayed exactly the same.
Dunyé is smart, funny and she knows how to tell a story. She’s also pulled off a neat trick of social commentary with THE WATERMELON WOMAN. Teaching without preaching.