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MOVIES 'Watermelon Woman' celebrates 20 years with re-release
by Charlsie Dewey
2017-03-01

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It's been 20 years since filmmaker Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman debuted to audiences across the country and brought one of the first depictions of Black lesbian identity to movie screens.

The Watermelon Woman was Dunye's first feature film, and it was the first feature film that a Black lesbian made.

The film tells the story of Cheryl ( Dunye ), a twentysomething Black lesbian struggling to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a beautiful and elusive 1930s Black film actress popularly known as "The Watermelon Woman."

While uncovering the meaning of Richards' life, Cheryl experiences a total upheaval in her own life. Her love affair with Diana ( Guinevere Turner, of Go Fish fame ), a beautiful white woman, and her interactions with the gay and Black communities are subject to the criticism from her best friend, Tamara ( Valerie Walker ).

At its release in 1997, The Watermelon Woman brought excitement that the Black lesbian identity was finally being examined in filmmaking.

The film was part of a wave of movies being that LGBT filmmakers made in the early 1990s—dubbed New Queer Cinema—that looked at queer identities outside of a heteronormative lens.

"It was an exciting time, the building up to the making of The Watermelon Woman," Dunye told Windy City Times.

Dunye had made a series of short films prior to The Watermelon Woman, all of which were gaining buzz around New York.

"What it was doing was filling a void," she said. "It was putting a spotlight on an identity that wasn't seen before and definitely needed to be heard."

While New Queer Cinema and The Watermelon Woman brought a lot of promise about what might come next, in many ways little has changed 20 years later, as Black lesbians still rarely see their stories told on movie screens or even small screens.

"In those in-between years, there was less and less funding for any American arts made by the people, for the people, about the people," Dunye said.

One reason might actually be because of the attention The Watermelon Woman received.

The film depicted a lesbian sex scene that one critic said was "the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid." It caught the attention of Rep. Peter Hoekstra ( R-Michigan ), who set about trying to disrupt funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which had provided Dunye with a $31,500 individual arts grant.

"I think it was the last [individual arts grant] because of the controversy around the arts funding and cultural production. The conversation got very loud in the moment," Dunye said.

She noted that, today, that same conversation is happening with reports that the soon-to-be-announced federal budget will propose cuts to the NEA as well as other arts and cultural funding arms.

"I definitely feel like that sound is back again," she said. "It's quite interesting to see that the culture has not grown, that it's going backwards.

She added, "It is so different when you go abroad. When I show my work at film festivals abroad, there is tons of support for the arts in comparable cultures. … I mean, this year, seeing Spanish or Portuguese filmmakers who are queer from different cities and regions in those countries get tons of support. It's sad, but it's not a surprise at this point."

Dunye said that, without financial support, films like The Watermelon Woman don't get made.

"She added that many of the filmmakers working during the early 1990s, by the end of that decade, also headed to Hollywood, where they were able to work but not necessarily tell the stories in the same vein as that of New Queer Cinema. Many of them focused on cable TV, for instance.

"Once those streams closed down you don't see the work being made and you see people trying to tell their stories in different formats. That's more in my mind what happened," she said. "It just got shifted and, therefore, you don't get as varied of content or no content at all."

Dunye said the LGBT films that do seem to gain support and attract attention today don't take the same risks as the films of the early '90s.

"I mean Pariah, an independent film that got a lot of attention when it came out and found a way to do it, but there's not a lot of stuff that is taking that risk and telling those stories like The Watermelon Woman.

"There are others that are trying to, again, not just make entertainment happen for queer filmmaking, but to make culture in that way like The Watermelon Woman did and talk about something a little bit deeper."

Dunye said despite the lack of momentum in the past two decades, she is hopeful about the future.

"I feel like it's a great time to be making work right now," she said.

She said looking at the Oscar nominees and more mainstream filmmaking of the past year there are changes on the horizon, not just in terms of diversity but how films are being made and told, such as Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro, which Dunye said is really the most exciting part for her.

"Moonlight is definitely telling a story in a different way, beyond its content and its direction and all those elements, how the team worked together to make it and who the team was, those things are exciting when you look at the whole picture and I feel hopeful."

Dunye is currently working on turning her short Black is Blue, which is on The Watermelon Woman re-release, into a feature film.

"It's an afro-futuristic trans love story set in Oakland, between a Black trans man and a Black trans woman and an AI bot that lives with them and observes their love," she said.

She said the film should be completed in a couple of years.

The Watermelon Woman has been re-released on DVD and on iTunes.


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