P and I were lucky enough to see a private screening of the 20th Anniversary digital restoration of The Watermelon Woman earlier this week. We also had the luxury of an introduction to the film and Q & A following by Alexandra Juhasz who is the Chairperson for the Department of Film at Brooklyn College, as well as a producer for the film itself.
Cheryl Dunye, the director and co-writer, is better known as the leading Black Woman and Lesbian filmmaker in the industry. This film is one of the forerunners of what is now known as New Queer Cinema.
The film is a faux documentary about a young lesbian woman’s attempt to make it in film by documenting the biography of an unknown black woman from the 1930s film scene credited only as The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl, the narrator, researches and seeks out The Watermelon Woman’s life, while dealing with her own. Cheryl discovers that she and The Watermelon Woman have more in common than just film, they are both interested in women, a theme that parallels both Cheryl’s research and personal relationships. This film brings up issues of race, sexuality, racism, censorship, self identify, aids, police discrimnation, and countless other topics that are still relevant in today’s society.
The film is beautifully done, and the script itself is timeless. Spoiler: This is a work of fiction. The Watermelon Woman is not real, though when writing the script they filmmakers were hoping for a real historical figure. Unfortunately, due to real life lack of records concerning woman filmmakers, lesbians prior to the 1970s, and african- americans in cinema, there is no known person in real life the filmmakers could document. The Watermelon Woman is based off of many real life women of the era that were ignored and censored by records, and lost to time.
If you are interested in The Watermelon Woman, there is a showing on Monday, October 3rd, 2016 at MOMA with special guest Cherly Dunye (director) in person. You can get tickets here. Or, you can buy it on iTunes for $7.99.