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The Watermelon Woman
Living Black History
“Hi, I’m Cheryl, and I’m a filmmaker,” says Cheryl in the opening frames of her feature film debut. A sophisticated film exploring Black erasure in Hollywood, intersectionality, queer culture, and Black generational history should say, ‘This is who I am’ at the outset.
Part filmed autobiography, part narrative feature, and part historical documentary, The Watermelon Woman tells the story of Cheryl, a young woman working in a video store in Philadelphia, as she embarks on a project to discover the identity of “the watermelon woman.” The watermelon woman is the credited name of a seemingly anonymous Black actress in an old film that Cheryl stumbled across in her exploration of Black film history.
Combining lo-fi video and higher fidelity film, Dunye jumps between narrative storytelling, video interviews, and “archival footage” with everyone from herself to people on the street, Black historians, and her mother. (Irene Dunye, Cheryl’s mother, is a storytelling treasure. The description of one particular memory goes like this: Irene: “There were weirdos.” Cheryl: “Sounds like my type of people.” Irene: “Yes, you would’ve loved it.”) This scene between Cheryl and her mother highlights one of The Watermelon Woman’s greatest strengths: its humor. Another scene revolving around a VHS rental of “Bald Black Ballbusters” comes to mind when recounting the movie's many laugh-out-loud moments.
The film's soundtrack perfectly curates music that reinforces each scene. It’s a soundtrack that is worthy of its own release. One particular song stood out as salient: Blunted Blitz. Finding a recording outside the film required a deep dive into the credits and a guess-and-check internet search. The search heeded this YouTube post. Shä-Key (the stage name of Hanifah Walidah) performs the song. Check out Bicoastal Holdup while you’re at it. Hell, just grab the physical album. You won’t find it streaming, which feels unfortunately apropos for an artist featured in a film about Black queer erasure.
The film's title, “The Watermelon Woman,” is more than just a callback to Watermelon Man (1970), Melvin Van Peebles’s only major Hollywood film. It’s a direct subversion of the title that forces us to consider the implication of simply changing the gender of a slur. It’s a thoughtful provocation to consider how racism is reduced and flattened in popular discourse, further marginalizing the people existing in intersectionality. Has a film title ever captured intersectionality in its title so well?
There are two recent films that The Watermelon Woman calls to mind: The first is Nope (2022) for its focus on Black erasure in Hollywood. The second is Tár (2022) because the film is imbued with such realism that if you didn’t know any better, it’d be easy to believe that the characters are based on real people. The Watermelon Woman employs the same level of authentic character work in its storytelling but in the service of affirmation. The watermelon woman isn’t real, but she represents countless people whose names go unrecorded and unremembered.
This is a film that works as a comedy, works even better as an experimental exploration of identity, and works best as a metatextual rallying cry for the reclamation of history. It’s considered one of the forerunners of New Queer Cinema, and it’s the tip of the iceberg in opening one’s mind to the endless histories of which the world has been robbed. One of the primary actions of hate is the erasure of history. The destruction of history serves the future mobilization of hatred. Or as Orwell put it: “Those who control the present control the past and those who control the past control the future.”
We live in a world where the history of marginalized people is, in many cases, hidden or outright erased. With The Watermelon Woman, Dunye shows us how history can be reclaimed and rewritten while living it herself.
The Watermelon Woman
Written and Directed by Cheryl Dunye