When you hear that 1996’s The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian, the claim sounds both impossible and impossible to prove. Considering that the recently-restored Daughters of the Dust was the first ever theatrically-released film directed by an African American woman and came only five years earlier, however, it very well may be true. Part of what makes this historical context so fascinating (besides the obvious horror of how recently those milestones arrived) is that The Watermelon Woman is self-aware of the achievement, purposefully crafting a narrative about representation of queer black female perspectives in pop media. A post-modern relic of 1990s Indie Cinema that vaguely estimates an aesthetic of Spike Lee’s Clerks, Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature is both an academic look at cinema’s historic disregard for representing black femininity onscreen and a laidback comedy about a movie nerd navigating modern queer culture while just trying to live by the Gen-X ideal of Not Getting Hassled. It’s not an impeccably crafted work, but it is a surprisingly fun one, considering the importance of its subject & historical context.
Cheryl Dunye stars as (*gasp*) Cheryl, a video store clerk who spends her free time (between shifts & social pressures to pick up women) working on a video project about a forgotten movie star from the Old Hollywood era. Cheryl’s obsession with the unnamed, uncredited actress, who was mostly relegated to playing offensive “mammy” stereotypes in the 1930s, is palpable even before the discovery that the woman was also queer. Cheryl shirks social, professional, and romantic obligations to bury herself in the video project, uncovering as much as she can about someone she knows only as “The Watermelon Woman”. The Watermelon Woman plainly states its themes; it vocalizes protests that black women’s stories are never told, onscreen or off, and it includes a boldly explicit sex scene to push the provocation of its casual, intimate queer identity. It also tempers these academic ambitions with the cool™, laidback shrug of a Gen-X era indie comedy. This is a film that features both a typical bomb-throwing rant from critic Camille Paglia and an extensive sequence of cringe humor mined from godawful karaoke at a supremely awkward lesbian bar. Dunye’s sense of craft is rough around the edges throughout, but she still manages to blend those two tones expertly, both charming & challenging her audience at every possible opportunity.
Digitally restored for its twentieth anniversary after a long period of distribution limbo, The Watermelon Woman has likely never looked better. The contrast between its sharp, vibrantly colorful celluloid photography and the fuzzy grain of its VHS footage is a great match for its high vs. low brow thematic explorations. It’s a multimedia approach that only becomes more powerful once old photographs & doctored ephemera depicting the mythical Watermelon Woman enter the mix. However, budgeted through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Dunye’s debut can often feel as if it’s barely held together. Many scenes can be abrupt, blatant and awkwardly placed, but that ramshackle, handmade quality is also a part of the film’s charm and is tied mostly to factors outside Dunye’s control, like budget & experience. I get the sense that she’s not that different from the Cheryl we see onscreen, passionately scraping together a multimedia piece on black queer female representation with limited resources while trying to stay true to her laidback, borderline slacker self.
The Watermelon Woman is surprisingly fun, understandably uneven 90s Indie Cinema, with invaluable context as a black lesbian milestone. Its humor smartly softens what could be an alienating academic tone, forgiving much of its rough around the edges acting & craft. Its most impressive artistry is in being just as personal as it is culturally substantial, which is a difficult line to walk. I can’t believe we allowed Dunye’s work to lurk in obscurity for so long just as much as I can’t believe we allowed her historical achievement to be delayed until so recently in our pop culture history.