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.
For this year’s Cinema’s Legacy program at FEST, AFI invited film scholar Racquel Gates to curate a collection of four films that reframes the notion of “classic” through a Black perspective. The program asks viewers to rethink the relationship between blackness and broader cinematic concepts, treating the very idea of “Cinema’s Legacy” as an open-ended question rather than a self-evident statement. Employing the notion of classic film genres and grounded in the 1990s – a period of unprecedented Black film production – this year’s selections are a snapshot of the immense variety of Black films from that era: DEAD PRESIDENTS (heist film), JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T. (coming of-age), POSSE (the western) and THE WATERMELON WOMAN (romantic comedy).
Watch Racquel Gates announce THE WATERMELON WOMAN:
Movie Trivia about TODAY’S FILM
DID YOU KNOW? THE WATERMELON WOMAN was the first theatrically released feature directed by an out Black lesbian filmmaker.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? Renowned feminist and critic Camille Paglia plays herself in the film.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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.
Learn more at the AFI Catalog.
The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions
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-In THE WATERMELON WOMAN, writer/director Cheryl Dunye recreates history in an attempt to depict the egregious erasure of Black women from history books and from the cultural vernacular. Describe some of the elements of the story that make the character Fae Richards seem like a person who actually lived in the 1930s.
-Why do you think there were, and are, so few roles for women of color? What happens to a society that only sees part of its populace projected on the big screen? Do you think this reflects an overall misplacement of power, or endorses systemic racism?
– THE WATERMELON WOMAN was hailed for defying narrative conventions, both in its story and in its filmmaking style. Name some aspects of THE WATERMELON WOMAN that seemed new to you. Why do you think Cheryl Dunye decided to use these devices to convey the film’s characters?
– THE WATERMELON WOMAN is a documentary within a fictional story, and therefore represents a fine line between reality and fiction. This is best exemplified by writer/director Cheryl Dunye, who appears to play herself in the movie. Why do you think Dunye chose to play with this meta narrative?
-How do you feel about Dunye bringing more attention to real-life Black actresses and filmmakers in cinema history? What did you learn that you were surprised by?
-How would you rate THE WATERMELON WOMAN?
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