Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Watermelon Woman

Another of the movies that I had the chance to see for the first time as a result of its inclusion in last autumn's TCM series Women Make Film is The Watermelon Woman. The TV listings sites say that it's going to be on Showtime Next tomorrow morning (or overnight tonight) at 3:15 AM, as well as a couple more times on Flix starting at the end of the coming week.

Cheryl Dunye, who also wrote and directed the movie, plays herself, or at least a character with the same name. She's a black lesbian living in Philadelphia who works at a day job in a video store (remember those) with her friend Tamara, with the two of them moonlighting as videographers for weddings and such. Cheryl dreams of being an actual filmmaker.

Cheryl also has an interest in old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, noting that many of the black women who played maids or slaves in those movies didn't even get mentioned in the credits. She watches one of those old movies, Plantation Memories, and sees a beautiful black woman playing a "mammy" role who got a credit, but only as "The Watermelon Woman". Obviously, this is an intriguing mystery to Cheryl, who decides she's going to make a video about her attempt to discover the Watermelon Woman's true identity and life story.

Cheryl's search yields information that the Watermelon Woman was also a lesbian, like Cheryl and Tamara, and that she had a relationship with her white director, Martha Page, which really bothers a lot of people, such as Page's surviving relatives, and a black woman who took care of the Watermelon Woman.

Interspersed around the mockumentary and the attempts to get it made is the story of Cheryl and Tanya's personal lives, as Tamara attempts to set up Cheryl with other women (while both are lesbians, they're not in a relationship with each other). Cheryl winds up, at least for a while, with a white customer, Diana.

The Watermelon Woman is a fairly short movie (about 80 minutes) for having two fairly distinct plots, and this is evidence of the movie's low budget being an independent movie in a decidedly niche genre. That's a bit of a shame, because the movie is interesting. Half of it -- the mockumentary half -- works really well. Among the highlights are feminist Camille Paglia playing herself and making comments that I'm assuming were spoofing herself about Italian-Americans and watermelons. There's also the woman running the "Center for Lesbian Information and Techology" -- notice the acronym.

Unfortunately, the scenes involving the personal lives of Cheryl, Tamara, and their friends drag the story down, in part because most of the cast are decidedly lesser actors. The script also doesn't really work here.

It would have made for a potentially really fun movie if Dunye could have gotten the funding to make a longer and more coherent movie focused mostly on the mockumentary. (Despite the beginning of the movie possibly trying to convince viewers that the Watermelon Woman was a real person, Dunye informs us explicitly at the end that it's all fiction, but does it matter since she's trying to celebrate the history of black lesbians.) Still, as uneven as it is, The Watermelon Woman is an interesting movie worth a watch.

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