Cheryl Dunye is a film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, and actor. She is Black and identifies as a lesbian. Dunye became visible in the 1990s, being a part of what’s known as the Queer New Wave or New Queer Cinema, an independent film movement centered around queerness. She is known for having a distinctive style that mixes documentary and fiction, and she is very charismatic.
I first learned about Cheryl Dunye while reading the book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, by Ann Cvetkovich. The book, published in 2003, explores the intersections between intergenerational trauma, immigration, and race. By reviewing the work of lesbian art, Cvetkovich discusses how each one of these concepts relates to queerness and kink, and how these feed back into lesbianism. This is how I got to Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman.
Google describes the plot, without spoilers, as An aspiring black lesbian filmmaker researching an obscure 1940s black actress billed as the Watermelon Woman. The filmmaker plays herself in her own movie. She interviews her mom, and other family members, with the hopes to dig up information about the uncredited actress. When she’s not working at a video store, she’s hanging out with Tamara, her friend and coworker. They shoot videos together and even go out on double dates. Cheryl is not shy in her interactions with attractive women, but she’s old fashioned. She’s even uncomfortable when being checked out by one of her customers at the video store. In the beginning of the picture she introduces herself as an aspiring filmmaker, which left a weird taste in my mouth (women often give in to the pressures of impostor syndrome - especially when in a boy’s club). Cheryl, in and out of her character, is not only creative but ambitious. From the opening scenes I can already tell I’m going to love this film.
The mainstream critique of the picture seems to be measured by levels of white comfort, and by that I mean, how a white person may feel after being exposed to it. Most reviewers back in the late 90s really thought of the film as not taking itself too seriously; The Advocate said it was a rollicking, sexy movie [that] never gets self-important; because, you know, being a person of color and not getting all self-important is always meant as a compliment. The San Francisco Chronicle even praised Dunye’s engaging personality. I have never seen a white heterosexual man being praised for that kind of thing.
What most of the reviews, with the exception of those actually written by black folks, missed out on, is that it’s also about being a black artist in a white world that fetishizes the bodies of women of color. It examines affective and sexual relationships of interracial couples in a way that makes many people uncomfortable. It’s the first feature by and about black lesbians. It’s about telling stories of racial profiling and the exploitation of black stereotypes. It’s about Race films as a genre; American movies made for black audiences and by black filmmakers with mostly black casts, produced between the 20s and 50s.
I enjoyed the way Dunye portrayed people relating to each other; it almost feels like the whole film comes together because of relationship dynamics. There is tension between coworkers, friends, dates, and family; but there’s also loyalty and respect. The voice of the director feels very natural, almost improvised in a refreshing way. There isn’t a moment in which I don’t think, this artist totally knows what she’s doing. Like with most low-budget projects, I’m sure Dunye wished she could have afforded more time to iron out some details or make room for improvements, yet her direction feels very assertive and intentional, and to me, that feels more important. I was glad that, at the end of the film, she reintroduced herself as the filmmaker instead of as just someone who’s trying to make videos.
I personally liked this picture for three particular reasons. First, it contains all the elements to disrupt heteronormativity. From the sweet and sexy scenes to that time in which Cheryl upsets an old lady who kept denying the relationship between Fae Richards, the actress who plays the watermelon woman, and Martha Page, the director of the film. Second, the amazing photo archive of Fae Richards, or The Watermelon Woman, that was entirely staged by artist Zoe Leonard. Collaborative creative work is one of my favorite things. And third, the story of a black lesbian actress, that went uncredited for decades, is entirely made up because, in Cheryl’s own words, sometimes you have to create your own history. This last statement resonates with me because, as most Latinx folks, my past is taboo. I am Mexican and all I know today is that I am the product of violence. I don’t know much about my ancestors, and the colonization of my country left us with an old echoing song about miscegenation that praises on white supremacy. You know, it’s always a white director who “discovers” an actor of color. We are supposedly passive, and just waiting to be claimed. In The Watermelon Woman Dunye is the master of her own history(ies).
As I always say, please go and experience art, and form your own opinion. You can watch The Watermelon Woman online (US only) and support the work of artists of color. If you are a lesbian filmmaker currently living in the United States, check out information on the Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant that will be open until September 30th of 2017. Don’t miss out on the chance of having Dunye herself be one of the judges of your work.
Words by Anhelo Escalante