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  • Poster GalleryComing Attractions
  • Mary K. Huelsbeck, Archivist (bio)

This issue of Black Camera features eight lobby cards from the 1970 film Watermelon Man. The film, written by Herman Raucher and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, who also wrote the music for the film, examines what happens when a white bigot wakes up one morning as a black man.

Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) and his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) live a happy suburban life with their children Burton (Scott Garrett) and Janice (a pre-Happy Days Erin Moran). Their lives are turned upside down when Jeff awakes one morning to discover his skin has “turned” black. He hopes and prays the change is due to a “great nightmare about a great sunlamp” but to his dismay, it is no nightmare. He tries to change his skin back by taking a very long shower, using whitening creams, drinking gallons of milk, and encasing himself in a white plaster mold, but nothing works. When he finally leaves the house and goes back to work, Jeff experiences the same taunts and hostility he used to inflict on African Americans. Friends and neighbors turn against him, his boss at the insurance agency tries to exploit his new skin color to gain new African American customers, his secretary suddenly finds him “attractive,” and his family falls apart. Jeff eventually accepts his fate, and with the help of several African Americans he used to harass, played by D’Urville Martin and Mantan Moreland, he begins his new life as a black man.

Melvin Van Peebles was offered the chance to direct the film based on the success of his 1968 film The Story of a Three-Day Pass. According to Van Peebles, he was able to convince the studio to cast a black actor in the role of Jeff, who would wear white makeup for the beginning of the film, instead of casting a white actor, as the studio wanted to do, who would wear blackface for most of the film. Van Peebles was also able to film the ending he wanted instead of the original ending in which Jeff wakes up to find his experience as a black man really was just a dream. Van Peebles felt the original ending wasn’t politically correct nor did he like the message that it would send—that being black was a bad thing. While Watermelon Man didn’t get the best reviews, it did well enough at the box office for Columbia Pictures to offer Van Peebles a three-picture deal. However, Columbia tore up the contract after [End Page 145] Van Peebles went out on his own and wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971.

Like Jefferson Pinder’s work, Watermelon Man focuses on the power dynamic between the races as well as genders. Pinder uses white face in Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien to portray black people as both alien and explorer. In a sense, Watermelon Man does the same; Jeff Gerber, as a white man, has power and status but when he “becomes” black—or takes the white face off—he is an alien in white suburban life and must explore the world, and his own mind, to learn how to live as a black man. Both Pinder’s work and the film challenge people’s perceptions of others and of themselves and how a change in physical appearance can alter attitudes and behavior.

The poster and lobby card collection of the Black Film Center/Archive comprises over seven hundred posters and lobby cards dating from 1915 to the present. Highlights of the collection include posters and lobby cards for all-black-cast films produced by Richard Norman in the 1920s, blaxploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s, and nearly three hundred African movie posters, constituting the largest and most diverse collection of African movie posters in the United States. The collection is open to faculty, students, and the general public for educational purposes. Each issue of Black Camera will highlight posters and lobby cards from the collection focusing on specific films, actors, or geographic areas of the African diaspora. [End Page 146]

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pp. 145-154
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