In 1993, Cheryl Dunye was an aspiring film maker when she found a gap in film history research – her own history as a black lesbian. So she turns her research into a film – as she says if no history exists you have to create your own.
Written, directed and edited by Cheryl Dunye in 1996, Dunye also plays the protagonist, a young film maker called Cheryl who works in a video store in Philadelphia. Cheryl is researching black actresses in films from the 1930’s and 40’s when she becomes enraptured with an actress in a little known film called ‘Plantation Memories’ where she is credited only as ‘the watermelon women’. But who is she? Cheryl starts to investigate.
On a shoestring budget, Dunye blends documentary style with a self-reflexive personal narrative that blurs the lines between reality and fiction while negotiating a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-sexual world in a way that I found gorgeously funny.
Cheryl works in the store with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker), who is also black and a lesbian and Annie (Shelley Olivier) who we don’t really get to know but is white and a graduate of Bryn Mawr. As Cheryl progresses with her research into the watermelon women, we also follow her new romance with Diana (Guinevere Turner) and the ups and downs of her friendship with Tamara, who has a problem with Diana because she’s white and a problem with Annie because she doesn’t like her goth style and piercings. Men do pop up sporadically but this is a film where women take centre stage and their conversations especially so. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes tense but they’re always interesting, individual and given time.
For a film that deals with such large and potentially complicated subjects as race, gender and sexuality, The Watermelon Women is incredibly engaging and approachable and that’s because of Cheryl Dunye. She has such an easy going manner, never sententious, there’s a sunnyness that is just fun to watch. The merging of ‘archival’ footage, camcorder recordings and everyday fiction is a real joy. Mark Kermode calls this ‘a groundbreaking blend of history, satire, mockumentary and film academia’, there’s even a cameo from iconic cultural critic Camille Paglia.
My only regret with this film is that it’s fiction, I wish ‘Plantation Memories’, Fae Richardson the Watermelon women and Dunye’s research were real!