Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Watermelon Woman, or: the City of Sisterly Love

I’m incredibly happy to report we’ve gotten around to this week’s pick, which has been on my watchlist for a while and depicts the lives of black lesbians from a contemporary and historical perspective. All of this through the lens of a fake documentary, rows and rows of video store VHS tapes, and as many denim overalls as you can handle. There’s nothing else quite like this week’s film, The Watermelon Woman.

The Film:

The Watermelon Woman

The Premise:

While creating a documentary dedicated to the life of a black actress credited as “The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl navigates her own identity as a black lesbian in 1990s Philadelphia.

The Ramble:

Aspiring filmmaker Cheryl has made movies her life–in addition to working in a video rental store with her bff Tamara, the two record videos for fancy weddings across the greater Philly area. But Cheryl’s true passion is watching films of the 1930s and ’40s starring black women, particularly the so-called Watermelon Woman. Though she has no information about the actress’ real name or any other biographical details, Cheryl is nevertheless determined to uncover the woman’s identity and highlight her life in the form of a documentary.

Two black women work behind the checkout desk at a video rental store.

Meanwhile, Cheryl has the interference of her friend Tamara to contend with; both are lesbians, but the expression of their sexuality is unique to each woman. Tamara is constantly checking out other black women and trying to set up Cheryl with a date. Cheryl doesn’t particularly appreciate the effort, and the one time she agrees to a double date with Tamara, it makes for an awkward evening with an overly dramatic woman who has an unfortunately inflated opinion of her own musical talent.

Ever focused on the Watermelon Woman, Cheryl tracks down a series of interview subjects to fill in the details. A friend of her mother’s unexpectedly provides insight, recognizing the woman not from the black-owned theaters she frequented back in the day, but from performances at gay clubs. Through man-on-the-street interviews and conversations with experts, Cheryl records forgotten stories of black history as well as the spirit of present day (okay, mid-90s) Philadelphia. She eventually ends up in the library and the archives of an organization known as the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (aka CLIT). Sadly, the members of the library profession are less than helpful representatives of the field.

A black woman and white woman sit together, embracing.

Cheryl’s journey to resurface the details of the Watermelon Woman’s life, real name Fae Richards, leads to the discovery of an interracial relationship between the actress and white director Martha Page. Was it really possible for a director responsible for depiction of her lover as a stereotypical mammy to treat Fae with love and respect? Connecting historical events to the present, Cheryl finds herself in a relationship with a white woman, Diana. Even in ’90s Philadelphia, a romance between a black woman and white woman is fraught; Tamara decidedly disapproves, and the number of black boyfriends in Diana’s past is worrying.

In the middle of a video store, a black woman talks to a white woman who is holding several VHS tapes.

As Cheryl continues her investigation into Fae’s life, a book is published (most likely by a white dude) that confirms some of the details surrounding her relationship with Martha. However, Martha’s own sister, as well as film and cultural critics continue to deny the possibility of their romance. Finally getting into contact with a woman who was Fae’s partner later in life, it seems the puzzle pieces are falling into place at last. Will the pieces align as Cheryl expects–either in her documentary or in her own personal life?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Perhaps best known as one of the only features directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman also happens to be a fascinating look into the forgotten (or intentionally erased) history of black LGBTQ women. Though Fae is a fictional character, she stands in for the lives of real women whose lives aren’t considered noteworthy as they defy mainstream narratives. The use of archival images and photos, as well as home movies, lends Fae’s story a poignancy that, as viewers, makes us question how many other stories have been neglected, buried, or removed altogether?

Dunye is observant of contemporary culture too, celebrating the lively streets of Philadelphia without glossing over truths about race and the queer community that reveal the City of Brotherly Love to be less than welcoming. Even in this film about filmmaking, the character of Cheryl is harassed by the police. There’s a lot to unpack in this scene, but currently the pervasiveness and the longevity of the problem of police aggression and suspicion stands out most.

There’s also a nuance to the way black lesbian experiences are depicted here–both Cheryl and Tamara express and act on their sexuality in very different ways. In fact, this becomes a source of conflict for the two friends, who I like to imagine will work things out. Tamara gets my favorite line of the whole film when she describes Philly as “the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

On a side note, this made me feel a sense of loss for video stores. Not for any experiences I had as a customer (and all of their excessive fucking fines), but for the number of film nerds they spawned and supported. I wonder where Cheryl’s character would have worked if the film had been made today; I’m guessing in a place where it would have been more difficult to meet ladies impressed with her film knowledge.

Would my blog wife show this film some affection or give it about as much attention as an extremely heteronormative wedding video? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

13th, or: Abolish the Police, Abolish Prisons

It’s maybe not terribly surprising that, as a middle-class white woman, I haven’t had many encounters with the police. Legitimately, the story that springs to mind most clearly is the time I had stopped after dark in a library parking lot with a friend after a hayride was closed (I recognize that this story is white AF). Lost, we pulled into the lot to regroup, and a police officer drove up…to ask if we were having car trouble.

There’s a reason my experience with law enforcement is completely different from the experiences of many people of color; comedian Amber Ruffin recently shared several of her encounters. And it’s much more intentional, insidious, and downright racist than you may realize (even knowing that the way the US handles crime or perceived crime is pretty fucking racist). Ava DuVernay’s modern classic documentary is this week’s film, and it outlines how the problem of mass incarceration grew to become a widely accepted form of slavery today.

The Film:

13th

The Premise:

Combining archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars, director Ava DuVernay’s examination of the U.S. prison system looks at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America.

The Ramble:

In a world where the prison population has skyrocketed from a bit over 350,000 to 2.3 million in less than 50 years, this documentary critically analyzes how and why the racist system of mass incarceration evolved in the United States.

As history professor Kevin Gannon reminds us, “History is not just stuff that happens by accident,” and the problem of mass incarceration is very much included, as the States represents approximately 5% of the world’s population yet houses 25% of the world’s prisoners.

The particular phrase making the incarceration of a disproportionate number of black people possible comes from a surprising place: the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Key is the exception allowing the nation to deny freedom as punishment for a crime…and a system that frames free blacks as dangerous criminals who need to be locked away from the rest of society develops almost immediately following the Civil War.

Writer and activist Michelle Alexander sits for an interview
Michelle Alexander

While the racism of the KKK and Jim Crow segregation has its roots in the establishment of slavery in the States in 1619, the film The Birth of a Nation served as a spark igniting racist violence in the early 20th century. This film spawned many of our modern conceptions of the KKK, including cross burning and the narrative of the South as a place of noble martyrs. In addition to inspiring violence, the film was incredibly effective in communicating an idea that would shape policies leading to mass incarceration: that of the black man as a threat to white women.

As Jim Crow and segregation replaced lynchings as the primary method of inflicting racist violence on the black community, the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Conveniently for racists, crime also happened to be on the rise at the time, thus creating an opportunity to spin the narrative that there was a relationship between civil rights, the black community, and violent lawbreaking.

Poet and activist Malkia Cyril sits for an interview
Malkia Cyril

Beginning with Nixon, politicians in the States felt empowered to promote law and order, aggressively pursuing criminal behavior, more often than not using “crime” to stand in for “race.” By framing the issue of crime around the chaos of major urban areas, the Republican party began to sway poor and working-class people to their way of thinking.

Escalating law and order policies, Reagan’s approach to the so-called War on Drugs led to even greater rates of incarceration in black and Latinx communities. The arbitrary distinction between crack and cocaine, along with mandatory sentencing, led to huge disparities in convictions between black and white people charged with possession.

During this time, the incredibly problematic phrase “super predator” emerges to describe criminals–very often, people of color. George H.W. Bush very likely won the presidency based on exploiting white fears surrounding one such individual who committed murder while out on a weekend prison pass.

Protestors carry signs and march in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin

But don’t worry if all of this seems like an unfair attack on conservatives (if you do, though, IDK what you expect from this blog): there are plenty of shameful policies and decisions the Democrats can take credit for. Bill Clinton really leaned into the image of being tough on crime, providing significantly greater funding to the police and incentivizing drug arrests, effectively building the modern infrastructure of the US police.

This leads us to the present, in which ALEC, a lobbying group, is responsible for a disturbing number of Republican bills related to crime and mass incarceration. One of the largest supporters of ALEC was a private prison corporation (CCA), which had an interest in keeping prisons full.

Activist and writer Bryan Stevenson sits for an interview
Bryan Stevenson

And this is really just the tip of the iceberg here. As an arrested person, you are under immense pressure to accept a plea deal rather than go to trial; as a result, 97% of incarcerated people never had a trial. In prison, it’s very possible you will work for abysmally low wages making products for many different private corporations. And, in some states, if you are convicted of a felony, you permanently lose the right to vote.

Suffice it to say, the president (affectionately known to many as Agent Orange) has done nothing but make the situation worse, frequently inciting violence in his speech and denying the conspicuous presence of racism in virtually every sector of society. One of our featured commentators puts our current reality in stark terms: there are more black people incarcerated today than who were enslaved in the States in the 1850s.

The Rating:

5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Just watch the film, won’t you? It’s streaming for free on YouTube (at least in the States), and contextualizes the issue of mass incarceration much more effectively than I do on this blog. The timing couldn’t be better for white people in particular to understand why protesters responding to police violence are so angry and why the black community is so tired of waiting for the rights they’ve been promised for generations.

With insight from Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Van Jones, and many other thinkers and activists (including those formerly incarcerated), the expert analysis comes from historical, cultural, contemporary, and personal experiences. The impact of mass incarceration is revealed in stark numbers, but also through stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been irrevocably changed or ended as a result.

To learn more, I highly recommend Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and the podcast Ear Hustle, recorded (in non-pandemic times) inside San Quentin State Prison.

Would my blog wife abolish this one like it’s the U.S. prison system or travel back in time to award it the 2016 Oscar? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

What Happened, Miss Simone? or: Walking with Grace

We could be doing better to learn more about black history and activism to amplify the work of black folks and contribute to dismantling white supremacy. This month, we’ll be highlighting some of the lives and experiences of black people on the Blog Collab–and, going forward, being more intentional about the films, directors, and messages we give our time and attention. We’re kicking off the month with an absolute legend of music and black advocacy, Nina Simone.

The Film:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

The Premise:

The story of Nina Simone’s success, jeopardized by abuse, mental illness, and both public and industrial responses to her Civil Rights activism.

The Ramble:

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life.”

Nina Simone expressed her thoughts on freedom over 50 years ago, and they still ring all too real. Though she gained fame as one of the most talented jazz and blues performers ever, Simone was truly fired up by Civil Rights activism while battling abuse, mental illness, and rejection by the music industry. Our film gives us some insight into the complexity of Simone’s public and private lives.

Nina Simone, a young black woman, sings and plays piano in a dimly lit room with several people watching her performance.

Playing piano in church from a young age, Simone grew to believe she would be the first black woman to receive recognition for playing classical piano. When two white women noticed Simone’s talent, she gained the lessons and sponsorship to pursue this dream. However, at the same time, Simone grew lonely, belonging in neither the black neighborhood where she lived, nor the white neighborhood where she spent much of her time practicing.

After studying piano at Juilliard for a short time, Simone expected to continue her studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but she was denied admission, very likely due to her race. Out of money to continue her education, Simone had no choice but to work in order to contribute to the rest of her family, who had relocated to be with her in Philly. Working in a club in Atlantic City and playing jazz her mother would never approve of, the girl born Eunice Waymon became the woman known as Nina Simone.

Nina Simone sits, one leg crossed over the other, smoking a cigarette, while she has a conversation with a couple of figures who are offscreen.

With her unique way of playing classically inspired jazz and singing with deep emotion, it isn’t long before Nina Simone records her first album, Little Girl Blue. To her surprise, her cover of “I Loves You, Porgy” is an instant hit. Soon after, Simone meets Andy Stroud, the man who will become her husband and manager.

After the birth of her daughter, Simone’s career begins to really take off. She plays Carnegie Hall, though in her mind isn’t playing music that measures up to the classical piano she grew up performing. Despite her success, it’s at this point that those around her notice the toll constant work takes on Simone’s well-being. Husband Andy is psychologically and physically abusive, spending a good deal of time in his managerial role encouraging her to always keep working. Simone is on several medications to deal with her depression and trouble sleeping, and suffers from drastic mood swings. At the heart of all of her work, there seems to be nothing; in spite of her achievements, Simone is still looking for meaning.

Nina Simone smiles at the young child (her daughter) she is holding, seated next to her husband.

Simone begins to find this meaning in activism. After the Birmingham church bombing that kills four young girls, Simone releases the controversial song “Mississippi Goddam.” Radios won’t play it as it’s too indecent because of the swearing…but, you know, white supremacist murder of black children is fine. Simone connects with the Civil Rights movement, finding purpose in fighting for the rights of black Americans. She connects with playwright Lorraine Hansberry in particular, and tells Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his face that she’s not nonviolent.

Fully committed to Civil Rights, Simone begins playing exclusively political songs. While she finds support in the movement, she gets none from her husband, who resents that she prioritizes politics over her (and his) career. Experiencing suicidal thoughts and seemingly having breakdowns at several times, the assassination of MLK, Jr. drives Simone from the States to Liberia. This time in her life seems to be a turning point as she feels happy in Liberia, but her relationship with her daughter suffers as Simone’s abusive behavior drives her away.

Nina Simone in later years, performing onstage while seated at the piano. She looks serious and focused.

With her finances in trouble, Simone jumps to Switzerland and then France to perform in clubs again. On the verge of a breakdown, several of Simone’s friends help her find a place to live and receive treatment for newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. But is that enough to help the woman who is, in the words of Qubilah Shabazz, African royalty? “How does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?” she asks.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m really grateful this film exists and gives us some insight to Nina Simone’s brilliance. I knew she didn’t have a happy life before diving in, but I wasn’t prepared for all of the challenges she faced, as a performer, activist, and black woman. It’s impossible not to admire her courage as a Civil Rights activist during a time when much of white America dismissed or outright rejected its message. Her cultural and social influence is difficult to overstate as she looms so large in modern history.

To be honest, I was hoping for a bit more insight into Simone’s interiority than was presented in the film. Perhaps this is down to her struggles with mental illness and her own image–in one interview, Simone reveals that she believes the Civil Rights movement has failed, seeming to imply that she could have done more. I suppose what my brain wants is to see evidence of some peace for Miss Simone, but we can’t know if that was one of her many accomplishments, or even one she wanted.

Would my blog wife give this one a standing ovation or be that one person in the audience Miss Simone yells at to sit down? Find out in her review here!