Cheryl Dunye’s iconic debut film, The Watermelon Woman, turns 20 this year. Along with an anniversary screening and Q&A for the film at the Museum of Modern Art, Double Exposure is celebrating by posting a newly edited version of Alex Robertson’s longform piece on the film from our 8th print issue.
Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 debut feature film, The Watermelon Woman, is a detective story. It goes like this: Cheryl (played by Dunye herself), a young black lesbian filmmaker, wants to make a movie about black women, “because our stories have never been told.” Working as a video store clerk on the side, she’s taken to renting heaps of old Hollywood films featuring black actresses. One of these, titled Plantation Memories and directed by a white woman named Martha Page, occasions the discovery of someone Cheryl calls “the most beautiful black mammy.” Her name in the film is Elsie, and she is played by an actress credited only as “The Watermelon Woman”—merely one actress, as Cheryl reminds us, in a shrouded lineage of black artists uncredited, partially credited, or miscredited for their Hollywood acting work. This is the black woman Cheryl wants to make a film about: “I’m gonna find out what her real name is, who she was and is, everything I can find out about her.” The mystery opens.
The first piece of visual evidence The Watermelon Woman gives us, before the aforementioned story even begins, is a title card: “Bryn Mawr, PA.” Cheryl and her best friend and coworker Tamara (Valarie Walker) have trekked out to this affluent suburb of Philly to make a little side cash by videotaping a wedding. As a Mozart string quartet purrs in the background, we get our first taste of the formal contours of Dunye’s project. The first minute or so is shot on video, and Cheryl and Tamara’s bantering—“Go stand over there! It’s kinda dark!”—can be heard behind the camera. Once the two finish their job, the visual format abruptly shifts from video to 16mm film—from Cheryl’s directorial work to a seemingly objective portrait of her “real life.” These sort of perspectival shifts recur throughout the film.
Just as importantly, though, this frou-frou Bryn Mawr wedding establishes the stakes of the movie’s central detective story. As Cheryl and Tamara methodically arrange a shot of the two families, a white photographer shuffles in the frame and begins reordering them himself. Cheryl, for the first time, steps out from behind her camera: “Excuse me, sir? We’re working with the family right now! Don’t you even see the video equipment?” The photographer has just forced this aspiring black female director into a position of total invisibility: our detective story’s first crime. When she steps out from behind the camera, Cheryl makes the invisible—herself—visible, and at the same time signals us to the process by which she was made invisible to begin with: our first clue.
The Watermelon Woman’s proper narrative begins with Cheryl, back at her home in Philadelphia, sitting down in front of a video camera and talking about her project. She plays a clip from Plantation Memories. The maid Elsie, played by the Watermelon Woman, runs through a bucolic landscape to comfort her mistress in the master’s absence: “Oh, don’t cry, Missy! Master Charles is coming back, for sure!” It’s a bit of mind-numbing type-cast racism, for which the central performer isn’t even properly credited. Through this film and its unnamed actress, Cheryl wants to give a voice to the voiceless, to flesh out the lives of those black artists who have been buried or ignored by history and its iconography—its books, movies, paintings. What she recognizes here, in the words of the scholars Phyllis J. Jackson and Darrell Moore, is that anyone in the West who wants to prove their “legitimated subjectivity” has to first “name a legitimated history.” Looking at the black cinematic archive, Cheryl only finds gaps and elisions and stereotypes: no (real) names to speak of. Her own identity is a historical chasm. She wants to fill this chasm—on camera.
Cheryl’s project itself is, lest we forget, a movie. How, then, does the intervention she wants to stage develop as a feature film? After sketching the basic outline of her project, Cheryl spends much of the movie traversing Philadelphia behind her video camera in search of answers. Her first excursion is a trip to the Center City district, surveying random passers-by. A man wearing a suit and tie walks down the sidewalk. “Um, excuse me, sir?” Cheryl asks from behind the camera. “Do you know who the Watermelon Woman is?” “Watermelon Woman…” the man slows his pace, perhaps suddenly remembering something. His eyes brighten: “Yeah, she’s the one who originated what we call… ‘Aunt Jemima.’ Like on the syrup bottles?” The camera cuts to Cheryl, in a close- up, surveying the Philly streets, squaring her hands in front of her, enclosing the city within the frame of her digits. Three young men receive the same question and banter their way through it. “Isn’t she the lady that wore the fruit cocktail on her head?” “No, that’s Rosie Perez.” “Avocados and things?” “Isn’t that Rosie?” “This lady is from back in the ’40s and ’50s!” “It could have been Rosie; she looked like she was from the ’40s and ’50s!” A title card flashes by: “(Sorry Rosie).”
If the events at the wedding were a sort of narrative “clue,” then what do we have here? This offhand roast of the actress Rosie Perez—is it another clue, a red herring, a cipher? The Watermelon Woman is full of such aimless passages, and they make for wonderful viewing but frustrate the audience’s detective work. A kind of meta-mystery emerges: how can a film about undoing the destructive work of history and culture feel so much like a hangout comedy? How can it possibly resonate so strongly with the sensation of discovery, of movement, of making jokes and meeting new people? “Rather than leading to pessimism or despair,” the scholar of African-American literature Saidiya Hartman has written, our desire to “represent what we cannot” ought to “condition our knowledge of the past and animate our desire for a liberated future.” Trying to represent what she cannot—in this case, the story of an unheralded black actress—is exactly what Cheryl uses her camera to do. The “liberated future” she imagines for herself mysteriously looks and feels like, say, Clerks. This too must be investigated.
Cheryl confesses to a second motive in her initial monologue. We already know that the stories of black women in film have not been told, and she wishes to tell them, at least metonymically, through the figure of the Watermelon Woman. But she’s picked this particular black actress as her subject “because something in her face, something in the way she looks and moves, is serious, is interesting.” Something serious, something interesting, something hidden.
Such is the thick methodological tension at the heart of The Watermelon Woman. What Cheryl recognizes in the Watermelon Woman is the actress’ radiant internal vitality: an affective potency in her eyes and hands that, in some sense, cannot be reduced to a political project. She recognizes, in other words, the self-possessed magic of the movies. Yet our protagonist also needs to make the Watermelon Woman signify—to find, in this actress, a speakable, relatable marginalized subject in cinematic history—without disturbing the aura of intensity she brings to the screen. Cheryl wants to imagine a world in which that fire in the actress’ eyes could lick the edges of the screen, lending her marginalized audience some tangible warmth and comfort. This tightrope act of desire and history, of politics and aesthetics, is embedded into the look and feel of The Watermelon Woman. If the film seems, occasionally, to peel off from its own genre schema, content to laze around, to goof off, to take on a life of its own, perhaps this is itself a particular method—a means of balancing on that tightrope.
If The Watermelon Woman does indeed possess a sort of narrative “inner life,” much of that life is dedicated to the pursuit of sex and intimate relationships. A riotous setpiece early in the movie finds Tamara and her girlfriend Stacy setting up Cheryl with a blind date named Yvette, a friend of Stacy’s “from out of town.” They all go out to a karaoke bar together, where Cheryl refuses to react to Yvette’s haughty disposition—“I think it’s time for me to sing my song…the one I sang for the Spike Lee audition at the black deb ball…”— until she proceeds to jump onstage and barrel through an ear-shredding rendition on Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You.” Tamara and Stacy giggle uncontrollably into each other’s shoulders. Cheryl looks away, anguished.
The beauty of Dunye’s narrative and formal framework only reveals itself, ever so slowly, as Cheryl develops a new love interest, much to Tamara’s chagrin: a white woman named Diana (Guinevere Turner) who moseys into the video store where Cheryl works, flirts with her, and leaves. As the relationship evolves, some details of Diana’s life and personality begin to emerge. She’s filthy rich, evinced by the laughably spacious apartment into which she invites Cheryl after visiting the video store a second time. She’s mysteriously interested both in Cheryl and in her documentary project, always the wide- eyed inquisitor in their conversations. And, proving Tamara right, she’s just a bit racist, giddily enumerating her past relationships with black men—“two, no, three”—and her distant relationship (“my father’s sister’s first husband!”) to an ex-Black Panther named Tyrone Washington.
Cheryl understands that something is up with this Diana, but stays with her primarily for one reason: she needs Diana’s material resources to finish her film. This dilemma takes on extra weight when Diana lands Cheryl an interview with the sister of Martha Page, the director of Plantation Memories. The twinned aims of Cheryl’s documentary—to tell the story of the black woman and to honor the “interesting” and “serious” condition of the Watermelon Woman’s face—here start to blossom within the movie’s narrative.
Earlier in the film, Cheryl follows a lead from her mother and interviews a South Philadelphia local named Shirley Hamilton, who gives her a shocking bit of news. The Watermelon Woman, who frequented Philly nightclubs under the name “Fae Richards,” was a lesbian—and more than that, she was involved in an intimate relationship with none other than Martha Page. This revelation stuns and delights Cheryl, whose personal connection with the Watermelon Woman suddenly feels levels deeper. (“A Sapphic sister!” she hollers into her video camera.) It is at this point that the film’s apparently unrelated narratives start to merge, culminating in the interview with Mrs. Page-Fletcher, Martha’s sister. Traces of Cheryl’s conflicted relationship with Diana—her personal, “inner” life—start to emerge within her social project; as she digs through the scant archive of black film history, she finds that Richards’ relationship with Page was mostly a means through which she, too, might ingratiate herself into the film industry. After all, according to Shirley Hamilton, Martha, like Diana, “was one mean and ugly”—i.e., bigoted—“woman.”
As Cheryl explores, relays, and creatively interprets the details of the Watermelon Woman’s working and personal life, she finds herself in turn better equipped to order and clarify the events and relationships in her own, “interior” life. The converse, too, holds. The interpersonal conflicts Cheryl faces—especially between her, Diana, and the increasingly disapproving Tamara—allow her to forge a deeper connection with the Watermelon Woman, whose fraught navigations of the film industry and of interracial partnership give Cheryl a blueprint to follow, or perhaps one from which to deviate.
The first piece of evidence the film gives us is its introductory title card—“Bryn Mawr, PA.” Its last piece of evidence is also a title card: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. – Cheryl Dunye, 1996.”
The Watermelon Woman is a fictional construct. She does not exist—nor Martha Page, nor Plantation Memories. Dunye foists this earth-shattering announcement on the audience midway through the film’s closing credits. Some perceptive or skeptical viewers will have seen it coming. Most, like me, will take it as a call to radically reevaluate the film they’ve just finished.
For a casual, frequently silly “hangout” film, after all, The Watermelon Woman looks a whole lot like a documentary. The film’s tripartite formal structure solidifies this impression— not only the 16mm “real life” sequences juxtaposed with the video “documentary sequences,” but also the apparently archival footage shot on Super 8 of Page and Richards, as well as faded, curling photographs of the two together. This archival footage and photography is, of course, fabricated (by the hand of artist and photographer Zoë Leonard). The Watermelon Woman is, in a sense, a lie— not just the kind of narrative “lie” of which all fiction movies are guilty, but a lie which is meticulously constructed from the beginning to appear as a truth, then bluntly exposed at the most inopportune moment. Why?
One answer, again in the words of Phyllis J. Jackson and Darrell Moore, is that it’s part of the movie’s purpose to “both exploit and undermine the power and authority granted to photographs and films as objective or neutral visual documents.” This observation feels very familiar for a reason—Dunye is, again, trying to have it “both ways,” and this desire as such is imported into the film’s formal qualities as a mishmash of pseudo-documentary video footage, (pseudo-) archival evidence, and a standard ‘90s narrative comedy and drama. This desire is political, as well: by waiting until the very last moment to drop the documentary act, Dunye uses her film to expose the tendency of political ideology and social status to affect even the apparently “objective” space of the documentary archive.
This point is deeply important both to Dunye and to Cheryl, her fictional avatar, who is constantly waylaid by archival incompetence in her search for substantive information on the Watermelon Woman. At the local library, she receives condescending, boilerplate responses from the white, male librarian at the circulation desk (“Check the ‘black’ section in the reference library. In the reference section? Have you checked the reference section of the library, miss?”). A trip to New York City to visit the overwhelmingly white archival Center for Lesbian Info & Technology (“C.L.I.T.”) produces much the same frustration, as an employee played by the novelist and academic Sarah Schulman talks down to Cheryl and then scolds her for taking unnecessary pictures. Even a cursory visit to the home of a local black film scholar, Lee Edwards, comes up short: “Women are not my specialty,” he admits. (Tamara, behind the camera: “Of course they aren’t—look at you!”) Local and national centers of archival knowledge, Cheryl finds, consistently misrepresent, obfuscate, or utterly ignore the histories of black women in film.
The Watermelon Woman’s constitutive “lie,” as such, blooms into a beautiful, deeply important truth. It’s by virtue of its narrative and formal eclecticism, as Matt Richardson suggests in his essay “Our Stories Have Never Been Told,” that the movie creates “its own archive of black queer memory from which another view of ‘family’ and ‘community’ can be formed.” In other words, if the marginalized subjects of history could manage to establish a free realm in which to create and interpret their own archives, perhaps they—and it is only fair to Dunye’s project that here, the royal, apolitical “we” must be abandoned—could better understand their own lives, their own position in today’s still-fractured world. Perhaps they could use those scraps of elided history to construct something beautiful, funny, touching, or complex. Perhaps the documentary could be reimagined as a space of play and redemptive agency rather than one of captivity. In Saidiya Hartman’s words—and in Cheryl Dunye’s resplendent images— perhaps this space of contradiction, where a vision of mysterious beauty must contend with the impossibility of its representation, could finally converge into a liberated future.