The Watermelon Woman

Posted on Sat 19 Nov by AlexK / History, Film, QTIPOC, Lesbian

by MK Margetson

In Cheryl Dunye’s seminal 1996 work The Watermelon Woman, there’s a scene where Cheryl’s friend Tamra says ‘i can barely stand the stuff that Hollywood puts out now, let alone that nigger mammie shit from the thirties’, in response to Cheryl’s acquisition of old films featuring the title actress. This act of unearthing old, painful, cinematic images is an act of purposeful oppositional spectatorship. This is the way that queer people and people of colour have traditionally watched Hollywood images: you see a reductive representation but (especially with queer audiences historically) you are glad for any relatable image; you recognise its falsity and its omissions; and thus you fail to be interpellated into the white male Hollywood gaze, so your viewing of the film is stunted throughout. Yet the erasure of our stories can be fascinating - it feels like an act of uncovering, and correcting, historical wrongs.

We are naturally critical viewers because to not be would do a great disservice to our own image. (We know we’re not mammies and sissies.) To recognise and explore these images retroactively though, is a distinctly queer endeavour. The most vital and comprehensive example of this activity is Vito Russo’s beloved The Celluloid Closet, published in 1981 and translated beautifully for screen by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman in 1995.
In another scene, Cheryl goes to visit a gay uncle. We know he’s gay as she mentions his being distanced from the family as the scene changes, and from his Lena Horne impression. He, like Cheryl, is an archivist through sheer interest in the image plus the lack of resources already existing. Cheryl’s mother, already interviewed, is also considered a collector.

What’s so groundbreaking about this film - other than, in 1996, it being the first feature film by a black woman - is the engagement with the historical lack of representation. Dunye recognises, as she shares to camera, that ‘it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told’. At a packed out screening of black lesbian stud-femme documentary The Same Difference earlier in the festival it occurred to me how early we still are in terms of black lesbian cinema, and how startling this is, as well as how formative Dunye’s film has been and the gravity it will always occupy in the black lesbian cinematic imagination.

If you’ve never seen The Watermelon Woman but have an interest in queer cinema, in queer representation, in black-female representation, in any of it, Sunday’s screening at the Barbican is a MUST. If you’ve seen the film many times before, this new restoration is like watching Cheryl and Guinevere in HD, and it looks incredible. The film’s fresh colour schemes pop like nothing on earth (I hadn’t realised there was so much pink!), and the beauty of the old cinema footage is more immediate than previously. The lead actors’ faces simmer on screen as they flirt, and the comedic responses of side characters are brilliantly full of life.

Sunday’s screening of the film’s 20th anniversary restoration will be a moment to consider and celebrate the strides made in black and queer cinematic representation, as well as the lack of an improvement on this black lesbian film in the 20 years since.

This is a moment absolutely not to be missed - make it to the Barbican this Sunday at 4pm for a celebration of the formative moment of black lesbian cinema.