Cheryl Dunye includes a personal quote during the closing credits sequence of her 1996 film: "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction." What is especially fascinating about this piece of narrative fiction, the first feature film by a black lesbian filmmaker, is how writer-director-star Dunye plays with fiction and various forms of filmmaking that effectively blur the line between fiction, nonfiction, and biography. The Watermelon Woman seamlessly incorporates direct-address narration, first-person interviews, musical interludes, interstitial montages, and mock-archival film footage into a feature about a Philadelphia-based video store clerk and amateur filmmaker Cheryl and friend Tamara (Valerie Walker) in search of a story.
The film begins with them shooting footage for an interracial straight couple's wedding. As two black lesbians who are knowledgeable about film and sensitive to the intersectional relationship between their race and sexuality, Cheryl and Tamara recognize the importance of media representation. However, they disagree on what stories need to be told. Cheryl decides to investigate the career of an unnamed African American actress billed as "The Watermelon Woman" in 1930s film called Plantation Memories. Tamara is hesitant and openly critical of such a project, as it might allow racist assumptions about the mammy figure and other manifestations of stereotypical notions toward African American women to resurface. Yet Cheryl believes that simply being able to attach a proper name to the actress justifies the project's existence.
Through a series of interviews, the Watermelon Woman is developed into a complex person. Tamara's mother introduces Cheryl to family friend Lee Edwards (Brian Freeman), a fan and collector of black-cast and race films. The protagonist's mother Irene (played by Dunye's mother) introduces the women to friend Shirley Hamilton, a stone butch who quickly dismisses the term "Watermelon Woman," states that the actress's name was Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), and reveals longingly that she used to sing at lesbian night clubs in Philadelphia. She also implies that Richards had some kind of connection with white woman named Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz, a media studies professor who co-produced the film and recently wrote a fascinating article with Sarah Banet-Weiser questioning the role of online self-branding among feminist academics), the director of Plantation Memories. Following a trip to look through the archival materials at the Black Lesbian Collection at the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology, Cheryl comes into contact with June Walker (Cheryl Clarke), a black lesbian who apparently stayed with Richards until her death.
The Watermelon Woman confronts interracial and intraracial tensions existing within black lesbian communities, as well outside of and informing black women's larger cultural history. Put simply, black women's ability to forge meaningful romantic or professional relationships with white women is called into question. Cheryl meets and becomes involved with Diana Rollins (Guinevere Turner), a diplomat's daughter with a Benetton complex. The relationship, and the implication that Cheryl dates a lot of white women, is a source of conflict for Tamara and her partner Stacy (Jocelyn Taylor), who want to hook her up with drama queen Yvette (Kathy Robertson). The couple grows suspicious when Diana claims Cheryl's production as theirs and introduces the filmmaker to one of Page's relatives, an elderly white woman who refuses to acknowledge the affair. Tamara is also incredulous toward Annie (Shelley Oliver), a young white lesbian with an affinity for piercings and raves (wash over us, '90s nostalgia).
In addition to Cheryl's heated argument with Page's relative, Cheryl encounters some institutional static with a CLIT archivist (Sarah Schulman), who explains that the Black Lesbian Collection is segregated from the rest of their holdings, displays little respect for the fragile nature of audio-visual archiving, and demands that Cheryl leave when she tries to film some footage in the archives on the basis that the space is collectively run. Walker conveys similar sentiments toward Page, refusing to participate in Cheryl's project unless Page's personal and professional involvement in Richards's life erased. The film ends with Cheryl uncoupled with Diana, on the outs with Tamara, and explaining to June that what Richards represents changes across generations and contains valuable lessons to contemporary and future black lesbian filmmakers. Following this prologue, Cheryl presents her film about Richards, which runs over the credits.
The film is explicitly told from a lesbian purview and seeks to represent a variety of icons as well as situate the film within Philadelphia's LGBT scene. The film boasts cameos from Turner, Schulman, V. S. Brodie, Toshi Reagon, and Camille Paglia, who draws a false analogy between the mammy figure and the Italian matriarch and celebrates the watermelon, in part, for having the same colors as the Italian flag. Dunye also makes mention of LGBT bookstores like Giovanni's Room and stages scenes in lesbian karaoke bars and at spoken word nights.
Finally, Dunye also acknowledges the difficulty in putting a film together. Apart from piecing together a film from racist structural absences and negotiating a variety of opinions that call into question one's own perspective, Cheryl is also arrested by two racist cops for breaking and entering during production. The police officers are under the impression that Cheryl is a young male crack addict. This may reflect the industrial boundaries black lesbian filmmakers must confront, negotiate, and fight against in order to get their projects made. Dunye followed up The Watermelon Woman in 2001 with Stranger Inside, a made-for-TV film about a black lesbian prisoner. She's only made one mainstream Hollywood film, 2004's My Baby's Daddy. In 2010, she directed The Owls, a film about a radical collective comprised of older, wiser lesbians.
In some ways, Cheryl's project, and her insistence in reframing and recontextualizing a black woman's experience working in an industry with considerable racist baggage, reminds me of the politics informing the creation of the Homophobic Classics Collection at UWO's Pride Library. If a group is marginalized and brutalized historically, why shouldn't those marginalized groups redefine and reclaim the parameters of histories that supposedly involve them through implication and dehumanization? In creating a rich, complex film about the processes of filmmaking and the interstices of identity, Dunye's The Watermelon Woman gets at the risk and reward involved in creating one's own history, which so often melds truth with fiction.