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It’s the 1990s when a young, ambitious filmmaker goes on the hunt for “the Watermelon Woman,” a black actress who played mostly mammy roles in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood films. So goes the plotline for The Watermelon Woman, a movie by Cheryl Dunye, a black, lesbian filmmaker who seems to have named and modeled her main character after herself. Shot in 1996 on a shoestring budget, this film is a masterful blend of documentary style and self-reflexive personal narrative, peppered with sweet stories of friendship and romance. This year’s screening at Outfest Fusion: LGBT People of Color Film Festival also marked the 20-year anniversary of the film, and an archival restoration of it by the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project in partnership with 13th Gen and others.
The 1990s were a hot time for identity politics, and arguably more radical queer politics than today’s continued assimilationist politics of gay mainstreamification. In the ’90s, queers weren’t welcome to adhere to cultural norms, dyke bars were still alive and well, and mainstream advertising had no part in a gay “niche” market. Dunye’s film took place in an entirely different queer time and place, yet the relationship entanglements, racial-romantic politics, attempts at renegotiating or creating a history that either doesn’t exist or is buried, and the passion needed to undertake the making of a no- or low-budget film involving one’s friends, lovers, and fellow creatives still feel relevant today.
The Watermelon Woman is centered around the life of Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a young, black, masculine-of-center lesbian who works by day at a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker), while also working on her film (of the same name) by night. At the store, Cheryl meets Diana (Guinevere Turner), a mysterious, young, high-femme white woman who is obviously well-to-do (she doesn’t work), and has moved to Philly from Chicago for an undisclosed period of time. Diana and Cheryl end up dating, which causes tension in Cheryl’s friendship with Tamara, who is upset that Cheryl is possibly betraying the black lesbian community by dating a white queer girl (who mentions her past boyfriends, though doesn’t claim a bisexual identity).
More than anything, however, Cheryl is focused on the making of her film, The Watermelon Woman, and is determined to find out more about Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman (Lisa Maria Bronson). (As a viewer, it’s unclear whether Fae Richards existed in real life or not, and this question isn’t answered until the very end of the film.) Cheryl has an inkling that Fae was a lesbian and had a relationship with one of her directors, a white woman named Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz). Cheryl uncovers documents (created by photographer Zoe Leonard) from a lesbian archive in New York (where queer academic Sarah Schulman makes an appearance), visits the academic Camille Paglia (who plays herself), and discovers Hollywood hearsay gossip about the Watermelon Woman. The film is filled with all things we queer ladies love about renegotiating and processing the self, including stories about creative self-reflexivity, attempts at discovering a queer history that could have been, the tenuousness of queer bestie friendship, and, of course, some hot lady-on-lady sex scenes.
It’s unclear why Cheryl’s character decides to break things off with Diana, other than having to choose her project over her relationship, as if the two were mutually exclusive, leaving the viewer with the outdated idea that one has to choose work or romance. This felt like an easy way out of the more complicated issues that Diana’s whiteness and privilege raised for Cheryl and her friend Tamara. But at least Cheryl gets her film made — not that there was any doubt that she would, in the first place.
Many of the women who worked on the film were at the Q&A, including Guinevere Turner, cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw, and producer Alexandra Juhasz (who was also Dunye’s girlfriend at the time), and mentioned they hadn’t seen the film in about 19 years, making the whole event feel wistful and nostalgic. Dunye noted that another black lesbian film hadn’t been made until Pariah (2011). This should have come as more of a shocker than it did; while other memorable ’90s lesbian films like But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Go Fish (1996), and All Over Me (1997) do include women of color in the cast, they are not told through the lens of the black lesbian experience, one that’s been wrapped up in uncovering a history that has receded and is still being reclaimed. Especially after the recent #OscarsSoWhite that took over Hollywood, films like The Watermelon Woman feel that much more vital to the continued conversations about people of color and queerness in film.