by MK Margetson
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.
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.
By Anna Wates
At the end of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, the following sentence appears: 'Sometimes you have to create your own history'. It hints at the intentional blurring within the film of the division between fiction and truth. As a black lesbian, Dunye wanted her film to highlight the poverty of the historical record when it comes to the stories of marginalised peoples and communities. This is because the archive tends to favour those with power. As for all the rest us, very few records exist; our stories rarely survive, and if they do, queerness risks being unacknowledged due to the prejudices of the era. So we have to imagine, project, or retell versions of the past which include us. This year Fringe! offers some great films doing just that; a selection of thought-provoking features and shorts that cast the net back through the archive, collecting hidden gems as well as confronting one or two lingering ghosts along the way.
One such film is Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman prompts us to reflect on the disparity between histories we are told and those we must imagine in order to be able to see ourselves in a past that forever attempts to erase us. This is clever filmmaking, a satire on fiction and truth through the format of a “mockumentary” in which the main character speaks directly to the camera about plans to make a film (the one we’re watching?). Dunye termed this style of filmmaking a “Dunyementary”, playing a version of herself as an aspiring filmmaker cum video shop clerk in search of fragments of the life of Martha Page, a black actress who worked in Philadelphia during the 1930s, also known as “the watermelon woman”. In some ways, the search is frustrated by the constant erasure of Page’s queer identity in official records of her life, as well as her own sister’s memories. Yet in other ways, Cheryl unearths a veritable treasure chest of archive material, including photographs of Page looking dapper with her lover, or an interview with older lesbian Shirley who tells Cheryl that the watermelon woman used to sing in clubs “for all us stone butches”. These tantalising glimpses of a vibrant queer past clash with stark irony the harsh reality of silence and voids alluded to in the poignant closing lines of the film.
The fact that Page is black, a woman and queer means her story is even less likely to appear in the history books than a white (or male/straight) counterpart. We can think of real-life figures such as Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker, whose queer relationships can often only be guessed at. Yet this exclusion takes place within queer culture as much as in straight society, something wryly explored in a scene from The Watermelon Woman in which Cheryl visits the CLIT archive of lesbian material. Searching for information on Page, Cheryl is handed a shabby box filled with uncategorised material by the white archivist, who tells her they keep collections pertaining to black lesbians separate in order to “make it easier”; a neat jibe at the frequent absence of people of colour from the LGBTQ+ record.
Intelligent, powerful and important, we are delighted to be able to present this classic of black lesbian/New Queer Cinema in its full magnificence, now beautifully restored courtesy of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project in honour of film’s 20 th anniversary. Catch The Watermelon Woman alongside our shorts Histories, Real and Imagined and explore these vital commentaries on queer histories rarely told or acknowledged.
The Watermelon Woman screens on Sunday 20 November at Barbican Centre