Writer/Director: Cheryl Dunye
Stars: Cheryl Dunye, Valerie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, and Guinevere Turner
The Watermelon Woman is a film made to look like a documentary. In the beginning you are introduced to Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a video store clerk and aspiring filmmaker. One of her passions is looking at old black & white silent films. A film she is a fan of is about plantation life, and had a black actress simply listed as “The Watermelon Woman” in the credits. Cheryl asks herself who was Watermelon Woman, and what happened to her? From here the story follows her quest to answer these questions, as well as follows her daily life. She discovers “Watermelon Woman” was a performer named Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), and had a relationship with Martha Page–a white woman and one of the few female directors at that time. During her search for Fae and her history, Cheryl becomes involved with a white woman as well, Diana (Guinevere Turner), that causes friction with her friend Tamara (Valerie Walker).
Dunye made some interesting choices. All the archival footage is fabricated. The old black & white films of Fae Richards were created by Dunye, as well as all the old photos and newspaper clippings referenced by friends of Richards. The look of the “documentary” portions of the movie are purposely flatter and have harsher lighting. The look of the “real” portions of the film are warmer and have more depth. While these are good decisions, the random shots of Dunye dancing to a quirky musical score on the roof of a building are out-of-place to the whole feel of the movie.
The acting varies from decent to good. Dunye as a character is likable and friendly. You understand her motivations, but you are not necessarily invested in her success. All the other actors do an acceptable job with their performances, but no one stands-out from the crowd.
The story of Dunye researching and making her “documentary” is well-developed. The story of Dunye’s real life is lacking. Though her relationship with Diane is carefully crafted in the beginning, its resolution is abrupt–making me feel if I had missed something.
The Watermelon Woman was the first, and until recently, only wide-released black-lesbian film in the United States. Its sometimes low-budget appearance can be overlooked with its interesting premise and overall likability of Dunye as the lead.
Grade = B