(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. In honor of Black Women’s History Month, we’re taking the opportunity to put a spotlight on black women behind the camera – directors who broke through systemic barriers to bring their singular perspective to some of cinema’s most intriguing works.)
For a long time, the film canon was gospel. It still
The Watermelon Woman (1996) employs bold stylistic choices to ultimately challenge that traditional collective consciousness as we know it. By leaning into the sensibilities of New Queer Cinema and taking on a genre-bending pseudo-documentary approach, the film introduces a Black lesbian gaze and dredges up Hollywood’s racist origins.
Cheryl Dunye made The Watermelon Woman against the backdrop of the New Queer Cinema (NQC) wave of the 1990s. The term ‘New Queer Cinema’ first appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 1992, when scholar B. Ruby Rich wanted a catchall phrase to describe the influx of queer-centric independent filmmaking at that time. The Watermelon Woman possesses all the classic elements of NQC: it’s a low-budget feature debut that shakes up the traditional (and heteronormative) film format. With a boisterous tone, it offers a look at the day-to-day meanderings of Black lesbian women, their sexual exploits, and the struggles they face—all mediated by their own gaze.
The Watermelon Woman maintains its refreshing disposition because it’s one of the rare films that directly confronts the historically accepted white male gaze. It’s told from the perspective of a Black lesbian; Dunye is behind the camera both as the film’s director and as her character Cheryl (also a Black lesbian) who wields a video camera for the duration.
Not only does The Watermelon Woman disrupt the white male gaze, but it also destabilizes the white queer male gaze. One particular instance of this shift in gaze is the first sexual encounter between Cheryl and her love interest Diana (Guinevere Turner), a conventionally beautiful woman who Cheryl’s inner circle writes off as “a white girl who wants to be Black.” This scene is explicit in that it depicts two women engaged in sex, but it isn’t bogged down with the fetishization that usually comes with lesbian sex directed by voyeuristic men (e.g. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color). Instead, it represents realistic gay sex, without completely objectifying the parties involved.
The camera dexterously offers fleeting glimpses of nipples and tongues, but they’re eventually lost in a sea of indiscernible interlocking limbs. By design, The Watermelon Woman uses this moment to normalize queer sex—which has traditionally occurred out of the camera’s frame or via a heterosexual lens—with a Black lesbian at the helm.
The Watermelon Woman is a multi-hyphenate, genre-bending hodgepodge that Dunye lovingly calls a “Dunye-mentary.” It straddles the line between fact and fiction and playfully switches between 16mm film and videotape. Interview subjects look directly into the camera as if in a real documentary, and falsified archival footage of The Watermelon Woman in action is deceptively difficult to accept as staged.
What’s most shocking about the film is that its altogether convincing premise is untrue. We follow Cheryl, a young video store clerk struggling to make a documentary about Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson) a 1930s Black film actress credited as “The Watermelon Woman” – who by the film’s end we learn is a figment of Dunye’s imagination.
Cheryl is immediately struck by Fae when she spots her in an old Hollywood film called Plantation Memories. Cheryl sees a stunning vitality in Fae, but she’s more than just a pretty face. Cheryl happens upon a figure who, to her, represents the many other Black actresses with lost histories. She’s inspired to unearth Fae’s story in the hopes of filling in some of the gaps in the traditional historical consciousness of Hollywood. The Watermelon Woman might be a lie, but Dunye spins her up to tell an urgent truth: the collective memory of United States history (in this case, its film history) leaves out a great deal of Black history.
What’s especially important about Cheryl’s reckoning with this forgotten history is that she’s a Black woman reclaiming her own lineage. After a cringe-worthy scene in the film where Cheryl interviews real-life feminist critic Camille Paglia, it becomes abundantly clear that it makes a world of difference when Black women get to tell their own stories.
It’s never mentioned if Paglia is in on the fact that Fae is fictional, but whether she’s been set up or not, she reveals some of the serious setbacks of having a white person – even if it’s a woman – negotiate Black history. Despite Cheryl’s frustration with the mammy figure, Paglia defends it as a positive representation of womanhood. She likens the mammy to her Italian grandmother, which grossly mismanages this harmful stereotype. Paglia is oblivious to the fact that her conclusion about the mammy is probably mediated by her privilege. It’s oversights like Paglia’s that offer evidence as to how the historical consciousness has gotten Black stories wrong for so long.
What’s also striking about this debut is Dunye’s stylistic decision to edit the film such that many scenes end abruptly and that most transitions are crude and unsettling. These moments sometimes suggest a sort of offbeat humor. An example of this is when Cheryl and her friend Tamara are sitting on a stoop, talking about Diana. All of a sudden, Diana appears in front of them and the scene ends. It’s ambiguous as to whether or not Diana has heard the conversation about her, but the quick cut speaks to the film’s frequent dry humor.
A more potent and serious scene occurs when Cheryl is approached by the police as she films portions of her documentary in the street. They seem to think that her equipment is stolen and have clearly profiled her. This instance certainly resonates in today’s climate of police brutality, but what’s odd is that the film glosses over it and moves on to the next scene without addressing the outcome of what appeared to be a dicey situation.
Perhaps Dunye uses this jarring technique to suggest ideas and then make space for larger conversations surrounding them. Public dialogues are particularly vital when the archives prove unhelpful – which Cheryl learns for herself after an unsuccessful visit to the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (C.L.I.T.).
Not only does The Watermelon Woman disrupt the white male gaze, but it also destabilizes the white queer male gaze.
Not only does The Watermelon Woman address the problematic nature of traditional historical consciousness, but it does so through the unexpected queer gaze. Dunye begins with the basic components of NQC, but then she transcends it by offering the perspective of a Black lesbian for the first time in film. Thanks to Dunye’s signature “Dunye-mentary” style, Cheryl is placed in a unique position that allows her to uncover historical truths that the collective consciousness isn’t privy to and hasn’t generally cared to seek out.