14 Days of Love: ‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)

Valentine’s Day may be a rather silly holiday, but it is a wonderful excuse to celebrate love and romance in the movies. In that spirit, check back each day leading up to February 14th for a cinematic advent calendar of recommendations presented as mini-reviews.

Day 7: The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Dir. Cheryl Dunye
Cheryl Dunye

Logline: A young, Black, lesbian filmmaker researches a 1930s actress billed as “The Watermelon Woman” while navigating her own love life and career. 

Guinevere Turner and Cheryl Dunye in a still from The Watermelon Woman

Why you should watch: Pulling triple duty as writer, director, and star, Cheryl Dunye somehow manages to deliver the cinematic goods on each account. The resulting movie is a project that crackles with the vibrance of a singular filmmaking vision running free. Presented as part fiction film and part documentary, The Watermelon Woman centers on a fictionalized version of Dunye, also named Cheryl. Her day job is as a clerk in a video store, but she saves her passion for the documentary about a mysterious 1930s Black actress known only as “The Watermelon Woman.” This actress was known for playing “mammy” types in Hollywood movies, and Cheryl wants to learn all about her, a challenging task considering there is little to no public record of her apart from her movies. It is only at the end of the film that Dunye confirms the ‘documentary’ aspects are fictional, accompanied by the text “sometimes you have to create your own history.”

Cheryl Dunye in a still from The Watermelon Woman

The blending of the two styles and narratives provides the film with a thematically rich structure. Parallels emerge between “The Watermelon Woman” and Cheryl, both subtle and obvious connections that foreground the ways both struggle to navigate the way society responds to their race and sexuality. One of the most charged components comes when Cheryl discovers that “The Watermelon Woman” may have been queer, and carried on a secret relationship with a white female director. This discovery comes just as Cheryl starts seeing a white woman named Diana (Guinevere Turner) who often comes into the video store. Such a narrative choice allows Dunye to delve into the intersectional realities of being a queer Black woman in America. It also gives her a chance to film one of the most erotic sex scenes ever put to film, one focused on an interracial lesbian relationship that foregrounds female pleasure without ogling. 

See also
'Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World' Review - Radu Jude Turns The Camera Back On The World

There is far more to recommend The Watermelon Woman than I can fit in this short space. It is stylistically daring, utterly hilarious, and effortlessly sexy. What more could you want?

Where you can watch: Streaming on Hulu and Showtime. Rent on Apple, YouTube, and elsewhere.

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