The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Directed by Cheryl Dunye
Throughout her first several short pieces in the early 1990s, Dunye created an endearing character: Herself. The auteur-star’s “Cheryl” is a shy, awkward, oft-lovelorn young filmmaker in Philadelphia that seeks to understand her black and lesbian identities better both for her own sake and for the sake of others around her. Cheryl begins Dunye’s debut feature with a direct-camera address in which she mentions the lack of media attention that black American women’s stories have received. One solution, explored by Cheryl over The Watermelon Woman’s course, is to unearth the legacy of the little-known black film actress Fae Richards (played by Lisa Marie Bronson), who played “The Watermelon Woman” in a 1930s Antebellum South-set film called Plantation Memories and was romantically involved—it turns out—with the film’s Caucasian female director. Another solution that Cheryl finds along the way is to record her own story for the camera and render her daily experiences (working at a video store, visiting the library, pursuing a new partner) as things worthy of cinema.
The Watermelon Woman was originally shot in 16mm and, for its 20th anniversary, has received a pleasing 2K HD restoration that will screen for a weeklong theatrical run at the Metrograph with Dunye in person on opening night. Philadelphia-area natives will recognize many locations—both urban and Main Line—that rarely make it into films. The exchanges that Cheryl has with her best friend, co-worker, and fellow black lesbian Tamara (Valarie Walker) as well as with her upscale Caucasian lover Diana (Go Fish’s Guinevere Turner) are clumsy and painful in a useful way, with the characters using conversation to try to claim their emotional turfs. Dunye’s influences for her Teddy Award-winning mockumentary included David Holzman’s Diary, Portrait of Jason, and the works of Isaac Julien and Michelle Parkerson; even so, she was able to fashion a unique and particular film by staying true to her personal orbit. The Watermelon Woman ends less with resolution than in suspension, with Cheryl looking both backwards and forwards as she reaches out to communicate with the offscreen world. Aaron Cutler (November 10-17 at the Metrograph)