This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Adrianna Gober’s turn to do the damage. Here are Liam’s thoughts on The Watermelon Woman.
REKT is a column that allows the various writers of Cinepunx to interact with each other on a creative level. By writing about a film that one of your colleagues has chosen to share with you, you are engaging them intellectually, and hopefully being drawn into a world of film and filmmaking you might have otherwise missed. It is, at its heart, an opportunity for a new idea, a new experience, and even to see oneself as a guest visiting another person’s interests and ideas. That, at least, is what I am telling myself to assuage whatever anxiety I feel writing about The Watermelon Woman.
The Watermelon Woman is a narrative which manages to accomplish a few important goals, one of which is to tell a story of the ways black lesbian voices have been and can be silenced. It is more than that, too, though it doesn’t need to be. So, it is with some respectful caution I seek to write critically about this film as a straight, non-black POC man. I seek to avoid recreating the very phenomenon the film is commenting on. Granted, it is much easier to do this because I loved this film, and I plan to spend the entirety of this piece gushing all over it. Still, I must acknowledge that this film is personal for some in a way it cannot be for me, and I have to honor that deep and perhaps sanctified connection. It embodies some aspect of their story, it comes to them maybe as a painful reminder or as a breath of fresh air, or even a beacon of hope. For me, it gives me life, but only as a co-conspirator and a fellow lover of Philadelphia, and not because it is telling my story. However, this experience I am having is not only good to have — to wrestle with something apart from myself — but it is the entire purpose of this column and thus, I move forward.
The Watermelon Woman is an interesting combination of genres; it’s a character study about a woman making a documentary, with elements of romantic comedy as well. Director Cheryl Dunye plays a version of herself, a young black lesbian woman who is trying to document the hidden history of a black, lesbian actress while working at my favorite video store of all time, TLA in Philadelphia, and navigating a new relationship that pushes her to explore her own identity. As Cheryl searches for information on an actress billed only as “The Watermelon Woman,” the film creates an opportunity to complicate race, gender, and sexuality while also telling a very personal and nuanced story. Also, the film is very funny in an unassuming way. The Watermelon Woman is really only tangentially about its central mystery, the identity of the titular character, and instead becomes about Cheryl navigating a complicated set of relationships and identities. Through this exploration, The Watermelon Woman comments on history itself with its own complications and ironies. This is made even more evident by one important fact one suspects throughout the film which is not confirmed until the end: The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.
This one fact becomes such an interesting storytelling lens, both in how it functions within this narrative, but also how it highlights the very point that certain identities and communities have been silenced, not only within the dominant discourse but within their own allied movements. The struggles of women, of women of color, of lesbian women of color, and of black lesbians, have been quadruply displaced as each singular effort for equality has focused on one emblematic experience or another over theirs. Cheryl must create the historical figure of “The Watermelon Woman” not only because one did not exist, but because even if one had, they would not have been held up or had their narrative preserved through history.
It also complicates Cheryl’s own place as the maker of this film. Many pieces across the internet claim that Cheryl Dunye is the first black lesbian director to make a full length feature, but of course what they mean to say is “that we know of.” This unknowing is in a way a double edged sword; that is, maybe no other black lesbian woman has made a feature, or maybe their feature was not made available, or maybe they themselves were not out in a way that we would know. In other words, the device of this fabricated tale elucidates the truth of the hiddenness of identities with which the normative discourse takes issue. This also does something else important: it de-emphasizes her identity, however construed, and the narrative of the accomplishment of this film, and reminds us that it is through a community she has gotten here. Again and again, in fact, Dunye makes efforts to highlight and bring forward not just her complicated personal narrative, but the diverse community of black lesbian women in Philadelphia, as well as the diversity of cultures and landscapes in the greater Philadelphia area.
This community aspect was particularly compelling for me because of how deeply Philly this movie is, an aspect I was entirely surprised to discover. There is a deep humanity to the film I hope all viewers can identify with, which I surely did, but there is a lot here I felt an observer of. That is not a complaint, but a feature. The film is unafraid to let the experience of its character shine forth uniquely and ask the audience to see the common human element. However, this Philadelphia community aspect of the film did connect with me on a deeply personal level. Dunye has an interesting style, mixing more traditional narrative movie making with documentary elements and aspects that reminded me of reality TV, and this diversity of styles really allows her to highlight Philadelphia as the backdrop of her story. This feels of the city, of its grit and its charm, as well as some of its privilege and injustice. The city seems, to me, a true believer, beautiful in a way it fails to in so many other films. This reality, of the city behind it, combined with the honesty of storytelling, really suits the performances. They are not ground breaking per se, but they work and in general feel very real. Dunye herself is charming as the focus of the film, but both Guinevere Turner (Diana) and Valerie Walker (Tamara) are very compelling, and it is their performances that I found really gave the film the weight it needed. It has become a cliché to say a city is a character in a film, so I will avoid that here and simply say the use of Philadelphia and its surrounding communities is not just aesthetically pleasing but strategic. Philadelphia becomes a broad and interesting backdrop with different flavors and varieties, and this highlights how Cheryl’s community can be so robust and yet also a bit set apart and unique. For me, it also touched a nostalgia I have for the city. Not merely because I miss living there, but also for the city of another time. This is a Philadelphia of the ’90s, and often focused on a gay Philadelphia that I remember and brushed shoulders with but was never a part of. It somehow reminded me of something, while also revealing something to me, and that was enchanting.
There is one final thing I need to say about the film. It is all the things I’ve said: charming and well told and well crafted, and revealing of something unexpected while hitting some personal notes for me. It is also a funny and joyful film, while addressing some deep pain. How can this be so? It is so incredibly difficult, in my mind, to tell stories about marginalized communities without resorting to some sort of suffering porn which folks outside that experience watch merely to “feel” something. The film then leads us to a place of realizing something painful. However, the story it tells is essentially joyful because it is about survival as well as surprise. Life persists, and that is a reminder we all need. The Watermelon Woman never seeks to exploit, to sensationalize, or to take the pain of erasure and exclusion and use it against the audience. The film shows these black queer women existing, and that can be fun and difficult. It has joy, and it has pain. Their racial and sexual and gender and whatever other identities are deeply what the story is about, but that is not all of the story. They are never essentialized, nor are they abstracted. They are allowed to live in a space of discovery, while still feeling like some normal ass people trying to live their difficult but also super fun ass lives. The Watermelon Woman, in accomplishing this balance, is an incredible and unique film.