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 Watermelon Woman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.