Released in 1996, during a boom for independent film, Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” was the first feature film directed by a publicly lesbian Black woman. In the present, a desire for on screen representation has devolved into marginalized communities yearning to be seen in the multiplex as superheroes, video game protagonists and mermaids, regardless of whether that inclusion is ornamental at best. But 27 years ago, queer artists were seeking to break a different barrier.
In the early- to mid-1990s, most independently produced feature films were shot on shoestring budgets and primarily written by, directed by, and starring slight variations of the same white male perspective. You could throw a rock at a film festival with your eyes closed and bludgeon three to five nerdy slackers telling stories about working service jobs and lamenting ex-girlfriends. Some, like Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” stood out from the pack. Still, the relative homogeneity at the heart of what was supposed to be a progressive artistic movement feels borderline insulting in retrospect.
On the surface, Dunye’s film is quite similar to the other Gen-X workplace comedies of the era. Dunye stars as “Cheryl,” a fictionalized version of herself. She’s an aspiring filmmaker who splits her time between freelance wedding videography and working at a video rental store. Cheryl works there with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). The two share incisive, witty banter about their respective love lives and shared professional predicaments. Like many indie films of the era, there’s a sitcom-like approach to staging. The film also employs the very ’90s Sundance aesthetic of mixed media, alternating pre-HD video and 16mm film, to differentiate between the narrative and Cheryl’s actual work. It’s even got the inherent charm of using largely inexperienced actors to lend a sense of realism to the proceedings.
But “The Watermelon Woman” is more than just another indie-dramedy, slice-of-life from a different cultural perspective. Cheryl is working on a documentary about Fae Richards, an unsung actress from the 1930s known for playing mammy types in films like “Plantation Memories.” As she digs deeper into Fae’s life, she begins to see parallels between the whispers that Fae was secretly dating her white female director and Cheryl’s own interracial relationship with Diana (Guinevere Turner), a white woman she met at the video store whose history of emphatically dating Black men and women gives Tamara and Cheryl’s other friends pause.
Through this conflict, Dunye takes care as a writer to differentiate each of the queer cast members. Much of the drama comes from exploring the intersections of identity within the community, something that provides more texture and nuance than many of the more milquetoast flicks of the era. But even amid the headier material, Dunye squeezes in some great comedic moments, like an extended cameo from cultural critic Camille Paglia monologuing about Fae Richards and defending the mammy archetype by claiming Hattie McDaniel is just like her Italian grandmother.
Ultimately, however, revelations about Fae’s life from a surviving lover blow a hole in many of Cheryl’s assumptions throughout her research. It speaks to the flattening of history concerning marginalized individuals who were never afforded the breadth and care in chronicling their lives that their white counterparts always encountered. It all dovetails into the distancing of friendships, the fracturing of romance, and Cheryl questioning herself for being complicit in the obfuscation of Fae’s truth.
Regarding legacy, “The Watermelon Woman” is accomponied by The Fae Richards Photo Archive, an art project Dunye made in collaboration with Zoe Leonard, featuring staged photos from the era the fictional Fae would have lived. It’s also beloved for its boldness, featuring a particularly steamy-for-the-time sex scene between Dunye and Turner. But revisiting it today, it has taken on a metatextual air of tragedy. We’re not as far removed from Dunye’s debut as her protagonist from Fae’s heyday, but there’s such a vast chasm between her career after this film and the ones launched by her white male peers of the era.
At a time when every white boy with a camera was building future empires for themselves off the back of black-and-white movies about their lives, Dunye’s debut was well-received but not enough to spur a prolific filmography. It wasn’t until 2017 and being hired for Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” that she made her way into directing a wide array of television, an avenue many overlooked female directors of her era have moved into.
While she’s done some exemplary work in that medium, I can’t help but look back on what might have been for Dunye as Cheryl looked back at Fae.
“The Watermelon Woman” is available to stream for free on Kanopy and will be re-released on Blu-ray for The Criterion Collection on July 11.