The Watermelon Woman. 1996. USA. Directed by Cheryl Dunye. DCP. 90 min.
The first feature film directed by a black lesbian, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman presents a striking alternate narrative to conventional black representation throughout film history. Cheryl portrays Cheryl, a fictionalized version of herself as a Philadelphia video store clerk on a quest to complete a documentary. The subject of her film: a black actress from the 1930 who was typecast, credited only as “the watermelon woman.” Dunye illustrates the implications of the watermelon woman’s identity (or her lack of identity) as a critical turning point to spur conversations about representation—a particularly powerful gesture in a decade in which the arts community was still unwilling to consider them. Deftly providing a lighthearted setting for this urgent investigation, Dunye also chronicles a vibrant lesbian community that supports and empowers those who belong to it, a representation also critically absent from cinema in the mid-1990s. When Jeannine DeLombard wrote in the Philadelphia City Paper that the film featured “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid,” the film garnered considerable backlash from conservative writers and politicians who questioned the NEA grant allocation in the production budget. They had good reason to be concerned: although the film isn’t pornographic, it is very, very sexy—even celebratory. What could be more dangerous to the people in power?