The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Throughout lockdown and beyond, you may have noticed the daily #HydeParkPick service that the staff of the Hyde Park Picture House have organised. Our favourite cinema screen may be dark for now, but films still go on, only for now they’re being watched and talked about online.

This activity has been greatly enriched through the partnerships the cinema has with people and organisations who, under different circumstances, would have contributed events, panels and discussions to the various programme strands at the cinema.

Between 17th and 24th August, the LGBT+ staff community at the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Arts University are promoting a ‘Digital Pride’ programme. This is a series of online events and resources that they have put together to mark Pride 2020, a celebration in the city which, which like pretty much everything else this year, has had to be redesigned for a safe and socially distanced world.

We wrote about three films that we’d have liked to have screened this month. One of them, The Watermelon Woman, is a particular favourite of another of our valued collaborators, So Mayer, who has written this excellent article about this important and groundbreaking film.

So Mayer writes about The Watermelon Woman

So Mayer: film scholar, author and researcher

In the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, filmmaker and film buff Cheryl (played by filmmaker Cheryl Dunye) sets out to learn more about a beguiling Hollywood-era performer credited as ‘The Watermelon Woman.’

‘Is the Watermelon Woman her first name? Her last name?’ Cheryl asks her video camera. With almost nothing to go on bar reductive racist credits, Cheryl finds a way to recover Fae Richards’ story – using every means necessary. She consults the main library in Philadelphia, where she’s turned away by a snooty clerk – so she turns to a grassroots archive, CLIT (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), where she has to deal with both chaos and an over-protective volunteer. She watches Richards’ Hollywood films that are available on VHS, and finds out her other cinematic career, in ‘race’ films, from film historians and viewers. She asks her mom and aunt, who remember Richards as a sultry singer. And finally, she meets Richards’ longterm lover, who shares stories and ephemera that challenge Cheryl’s perceptions of Richards’ career – and of film history.

Fae Richards, 1930s film actress, with director Martha Page

Unlike the Watermelon Woman, The Watermelon Woman is out there, especially since the restoration in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. It’s been written about brilliantly by scholars such as Kara Keeling, in her books The Witch’s Flight and Queer Times, Black Futures, paying respect to its visionary significance for Black queer feminist cinema. One of the reasons that the film remains so thrilling is that, like Richards’ long career across different kinds of performance, The Watermelon Woman brings together, spins off from and continues to inspire multiple modes of Black queer feminist cultural production. Whether you’re looking for your next viewing or reading after watching the film, or want new ways to approach its multi-layered excellence… inspired by Cheryl’s search, here’s a few routes to try:

1. Who Is She?

The Watermelon Woman often gets singled out as the Black lesbian mid-90s work: while it may have been lonely in the white male-dominated New Queer Cinema canon, it wasn’t quite alone – although, as with Fae Richards’ career, we need to look mostly beyond Hollywood. The film nods to that, with a brief cameo by musician Toshi Reagon, who appears as a busker towards the end of the film. The daughter of musicians who played in both Sweet Honey in the Rock and The Freedom Singers, Reagon connects 90s Black Philly through the history of African American music to Fae’s world of smoky jazz and blues clubs.

She’s also a direct connection to the Black butch and masculine of centre music stars emerging in the mid to late 90s. Meshell Ndegeocello hit #1 on the US Dance chart in 1996, with her cover of “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?,” from her 1993 ground-breaking debut Plantation Lullabies. British rock band Skunk Anansie, led by the charismatic Skin (whose autobiography is out in September!), had lent two songs to the soundtrack of Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), which featured a hard-bodied performance from Angela Bassett as a (sadly straight) bodyguard.

And in between her Grammy-winning third album Black Reign and legacy-defining fourth, Order in the Court, Queen Latifah played a butch garage mechanic and criminal mastermind in 1996’s Set It Off (F. Gary Gray), which you can imagine Cheryl’s video store co-worker Tamara (Valarie Walker) renting at least once a week.

Cheryl plays Cheryl, a video store clerk

2. Set It Off!

As well as being a redefining outlier of New Queer Cinema, The Watermelon Woman is both a queer feminist reboot/rewrite of New Jack Cinema, and a lively queer entry into an emerging African American women’s cinema.

New Jack Cinema appears to have been tagged by Newsweek in 1991, grouping the aesthetic of that year’s films Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton), New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles), Hangin’ With the Homeboys (Joseph Vasquez) and Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich), as well as namechecking the independent cinema of Charles Burnett and Spike Lee. Five years later, Newsday called Dunye ‘the lesbian Spike Lee’, which also pointed to the continued male domination of Black filmmaking, both indie and studio.

But in between Newsweek and Newsday, Julie Dash had made Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first fiction feature by an African American woman to enter distribution, following on Euzhan Palcy being the first Black woman (born in Martinique and having studied in Paris) to direct a Hollywood studio movie in 1989, A Dry White Season. In 1994, Darnell Martin became the first African American woman to direct a studio movie, with I Like It Like That.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust – this film was a #HydeParkPick in June

Following Dash, there were debuts for Leslie Harris, with Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1993), Ayoka Chenzira with Alma’s Rainbow (1994), Debbie Allen with crime drama (and LL Cool J’s debut) Out of Sync (1995), and Kasi Lemmons, with Eve’s Bayou in 1997 – and subsequently Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta (1998) (although her screenplay for fiction feature Georgia, Georgia (Stig Björkman, 1972) was the first by an African American woman to be produced), Drylongso (Cauleen Smith, 1998), and Zeinabu Irene Davis’s Compensation (1999).

Newsday optimistically end their article with a quote from Sidewalk Stories (1989) director Charles Lane, who says of the “New Jack” moment: “I equate this with the breaking down of the Berlin wall; there is no going back.” So Dunye was part of a badass cohort creating a diverse Black cinema – but almost none of it, certainly the films by Black women filmmakers, is still easily available to see. We had to wait until Dee Rees’ Pariah in 2011 for a second theatrical-release American fiction feature by a Black lesbian director with a Black lesbian protagonist.

3. Inside Is Out of the Box

After Pariah, Rees made her next film for HBO: a biopic of blues singer Bessie Smith, starring (it all ties together) Queen Latifah. HBO was also where Dunye made her next feature, Stranger Inside, in 2001, with an outstanding debut performance by Yolonda Ross as the lead, Treasure, who gets (herself) sent to prison, where she reconnects with her mother. There’s gangs, fights, face-offs and if you’re thinking it sounds familiar: yes, Dunye did Orange is the New Black way before Orange did, and with no annoying white POV character.

She was, thus, doing quality TV way before it was a lionised route for white cis male directors (Brett Martin’s defining 2014 book on the new era in American TV is called… Difficult Men, sigh). And she has since returned to the medium, most notably as part of Ava DuVernay’s company of creatives on Queen Sugar (2017-19), where she directed four episodes over four seasons and produced all 13 episodes of Season 4; as well as helming episodes of Dear White People (2019), and of Jordan Peele’s forthcoming horror anthology Lovecraft Country (2020).

And she’s developing her own show – more than a show, an event… a legend: an adaption of Jewelle Gomez’s novel The Gilda Stories, which follows a queer Black vampire through 200 years of African American (and lesbian) history, giving Dunye an opportunity to return to the glorious historical reconstructions she (and artist Zoe Leonard) staged to create Fae Richards’ story. Never out of print in the US since its publication in 1991 (that banner year), it was the 25th anniversary edition that sparked up a conversation between Dunye and Gomez – who is also working on a sequel with the working title, Gilda: The Alternate Decades

Vampire novel The Gilda Stories by author Jewelle Gomez

4. Together Forever

Dunye began her film career with a literary collaboration/adaptation with another Black queer woman, with the 1989 video short ‘Wild Thing: A Poem by Sapphire.’ While her subsequent short films frequently – and hilariously – deploy the first-person to-camera video diary style that Cheryl initially uses for her documentary, behind the camera Dunye is a prevalent collaborator who built a community of queer filmmakers during the lean years of the early twenty-first century.

Although the film famously received NEA funding for which it was infamously criticised by a Republican senator, Dunye has noted that The Watermelon Woman raised the majority of its funds from the 1990s lesbian equivalent of a crowdfunder; namely, a potluck (her fifth short, from 1993, was titled The Potluck and the Passion). Her beloved lesbian genre parody The OWLS (2010) not only features Go Fish stars Guinevere Turner and VS Brodie and among its older, wiser lesbian murderers, but also British lesbian filmmaker Lisa Gornick, while Campbell X mixed the sound.

X’s East London-set 2012 fiction feature Stud Life combines the queer collective production process of Dunye’s work with her early first-person address updated for the new millennium, as the film’s protagonist JJ (T’nia Miller) replaces Cheryl’s video documentary with to-camera YouTube videos. In another homage to The Watermelon Woman, JJ and her best friend Seb (Kyle Treslove) work as wedding photographers, referencing Cheryl and Tamara’s video business, much-discussed but rarely seen barring the film’s witty pre-credit opening at a bar mitzvah.

Times have changed since 1996, but queer Black friendship and love, and the reconstruction of their histories, persist – at least in some small part thanks to The Watermelon Woman itself. The film ends with a title screen that reads ‘Sometimes you have to create your own history’. Fae Richards may only exist in the film’s imagination, but through Dunye’s career, collaborations and connections, her story has created its own history, one we now get to live in.

You can stream The Watermelon Woman directly from Peccadillo Pictures or use one of the many other options to view.

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