I first saw Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman this past March at an Outfest Fusion screening celebrating the film's 20th anniversary. The Watermelon Woman is known for being the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian, but until now, the DVD version of this award-winning and groundbreaking film looked like "chicken scratch" (Dunye's words). The film was recently remastered by the Outfest Legacy Project, spurring a rebirth of interest. It's about grasping for stories hidden and seeking identity, and watching it two decades later is inspiring its new audience to do the same.
The Watermelon Woman follows a 20-something lesbian, Cheryl (played by Dunye), who works in a video store and embarks on an epic and experimental deep dive to make a very personal documentary film. Her subject is Fae Richards, a stunning black actress who played archetypal mammy roles in 1940s Civil War movies but was vaguely credited only as "The Watermelon Woman." Cheryl reinscribes the mammy image; she speaks directly to the camera, gesturing as Richards comes on-screen in a film called Plantation Memories and says: "Girlfriend has got it going on!"
Cheryl, researching pre-Google, delves into archives (including the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology, a.k.a. CLIT) and travels to interview people who knew Richards, in the process discovering that the actress was also a lesbian, a flame in the gay scene in Philly in her day.
It's surprising to learn that The Watermelon Woman was made up. The credits read, "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction." Dunye and cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw created authentic-feeling archival footage that brings the actress to life and talking-head interviews that make the faux-documentary aspects pulse. Perspectives switch, the picture alternates between video and celluloid, and there are spirited dance interludes: it's a queer, postmodern conversation across time, one that gives legacy and celebrity to disregarded identities.
Dunye, now a professor at San Francisco State, remains an incredible filmmaker and creator. We spoke on the phone about her first film.
Cheryl Dunye: San Francisco Film Festival just announced the screening of The Watermelon Woman at the Castro. Yay! Which feels so great because we premiered there 20 years ago, and it's at the Castro so it's full circle.
Katherine Bernard: Where has the film been all this time?
CD: The negative was in a vault at the UCLA Film and Television Archive; she was just a lady in waiting there until the 20th anniversary spurred all this movement around its being born again.
KB: May I tell you a story? Michelle Crenshaw came out into the line before the screening and gave my girlfriend, who is a director of photography, one of her extra tickets. We didn't know who she was in the moment, we wondered if maybe she was involved with the film, then during the Q&A we realized that she had walked outside for one second, magically spotted another female DP, and gave her the gift of watching the film.
CD: Michelle is so powerful. She applied herself to the project before anybody else did. Really, she was the first person on board. She's just great. She's so underutilized in the sense of her oeuvre. She's in the union for camera, so she's not in the cinematographers' union, it's very hard to get into. [Editor's Note: Women make up less than 4 percent of the American Society of Cinematographers.] She keeps me abreast of how difficult it is, but she is there to try to make some changes. We know that behind the set can be a very difficult for place for women of any kind.