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The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility
Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies
Cheryl Dunye's 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman, is a groundbreaking, and rulebreaking, film. The first feature film made by a black lesbian filmmaker (McAlister), the film employs both deconstructive and realist techniques to examine the way that identity in contemporary U.S. culture is shaped by multiple forces, primarily race, gender, and sexual orientation. Encouraging viewers to consider the unstable, complex, and often contradictory nature of identity, the film is humorous yet politically engaging. In this paper, I consider the ways that the film works simultaneously to represent and to decenter the identity and history of a figure most invisible in the textual production of the dominant culture--the black lesbian.
The Watermelon Woman, an independent film made on a shoestring budget, experimentally combines narrative and documentary forms. The film's storyline centers on the life and work of Cheryl, a black lesbian woman filmmaker living in Philadelphia. Cheryl works in a video store and in an independent video business with her acerbic friend Tamara, also black and lesbian. Cheryl is making a film about an African-American actress named Fae "The Watermelon Woman" Richards, who appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. The central narrative's plot concerns Cheryl's relationship with a white woman, Diana, and the parallels between Cheryl's experiences and the subject matter of her research: the life and work of Fae Richards, who was not only a black woman involved in film, but a lesbian who once had an affair with one of her white directors, a woman named Martha Page. Metafictionally, Cheryl often directly addresses the camera as she describes her progress in making the film within the film, and the film presents us with scenes of Cheryl creating her film, performing interviews, and undertaking archival research. The primary tension in the film occurs at the intersection of race and sexual orientation and addresses the feasibility--and politics--of black-white lesbian relationships.
The film also reworks filmic conventions, both traditional and postmodern, as it provokes the viewer's curiosity about this unknown "watermelon woman" actress. Many viewers find it "simply fascinating to follow along with Cheryl's detective work" as she searches for clues about this unknown black actress (McAlister). We participate in Cheryl's process of discovery as she learns about this historical figure with whom she increasingly identifies. The viewer does not discover until the film's end that the actress Fae "The Watermelon Woman" Richards never existed, and is, in fact, the creation of the film's writer and director, Dunye. I explore the implications of the way that the film draws upon and questions both fictional and documentary forms in more detail below. First, a consideration of how this film addresses the representation of members of marginalized groups. [End Page 448]
De/Reconstructing Images of Black Women
In Black Women as Cultural Readers, Jacqueline Bobo asserts that "Black women are . . . knowledgeable recorders of their history and experiences and have a stake in faithfully telling their own stories" (36). In her first direct address of the viewer, Cheryl speaks to this imperative as she muses about what subject to use as the focus of her film: "I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told." As this remark indicates, Cheryl Dunye recognizes that the voices of black women have been absent from the dominant cultural production of texts in this century; her film seeks to address this elision.
Recent cultural critics point out that the primary images of black women in film have been largely harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. Bobo explains that throughout the history of Hollywood cinema, we find "a venerable tradition of distorted and limited imagery" of representations of black women, who have been limitedly characterized "as sexually deviant, as the dominating matriarchal figure, as strident, eternally ill-tempered wenches, and as wretched victims" (33). Bobo specifies that within this...