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:

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