Movie Club Weekly – American Film Institute


October 19, 2020

THE WATERMELON WOMAN

(1996)

Directed, written by and starring Cheryl Dunye, THE WATERMELON WOMAN follows aspiring filmmaker and video store clerk Cheryl, self-referentially portrayed by Dunye, who embarks on a documentary project tracing the unwritten history of an unidentified Black actress spotted in a number of films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

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FROM THE AFI ARCHIVE

THE WATERMELON WOMAN was the first theatrically released feature directed by an out Black lesbian filmmaker.

Writer/director Cheryl Dunye was inspired to make THE WATERMELON WOMAN after taking an African American film history class and discovering that Black actresses were generally uncredited onscreen. By giving their stories new life, she hoped to prompt wider efforts to combat the erasure of people of color in front of and behind the camera.

The title is a reference to filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles’ 1970 comedy WATERMELON MAN, one of the few films to depict “whiteface” as a counterpoint to Hollywood’s racist tropes.

THE WATERMELON WOMAN’s $300,000 budget was partially financed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as from private donations.

The film’s lesbian love scene resulted in complaints from the U.S. Congress’ House Education and Workforce Committee, which objected to the NEA grant of taxpayer’s dollars funding a movie with explicit homosexuality. The controversy resulted in a restructuring of the NEA.

The fictional “Fae Richards Archive” was created by New York artist Zoe Leonard, who exhibited the collection at the Whitney Museum Biennial in 1997, as well as published the stills in a book.

Renowned feminist and critic Camille Paglia plays herself in the film.

Producer Barry Swimar previously co-produced PARIS IS BURNING, a landmark documentary showcasing the golden age of vogueing and drag ball culture in New York City and a major milestone in American queer cinema.

THE WATERMELON WOMAN made its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996 where it won a Teddy Award for Best Feature, but it was not released in the U.S. until March 1997. It also screened at various LGBTQ festivals where it was frequently honored with audience awards.

Twenty years after its initial opening, a print of THE WATERMELON WOMAN was acquired by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art for its collection in 2016.

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