The Watermelon Woman
THE WATERMELON WOMAN. 1996

Director: Cheryl Dunye

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



One of the cleverest mocumentaries I've ever seen is The Watermelon Woman (1996) about an independent black film documentarian (played by writer-director Cheryl Dunye) doing research on "mammy" actresses of the 1930s, & who discovers a forgotten black actress of the Hollywood golden era.

The Watermelon WomanBilled in cast credits only as "The Watermelon Woman," Cheryl becomes focused on tracking down who this forgotten woman really was. She finds out her name was Fae Richards & that she had been a lesbian who had an affair with a white director.

It's such an in-joke for everyone aware of some of the actual history of African Americans in Hollywood that it might not be as rewarding or accessible to viewers unfamiliar or uninterested in the very topic. For anyone even slightly in the know, however, this little film is an amazing achievement for subtle social satire.

It's also a great achievement for inexpensive independent filmmaking, as the context is perfect for mismatching film stocks, & anyone who is trying to make an underfunded movie might gain by studying this one.

I saw this film cold-turkey with no advanced knowledge of what I was walking into, & it took me a few minutes to realize this was a mock documentary & not the real deal. It looked so real, & fit so well into Hollywood history, that for several minutes I couldn't believe I'd never known about this actress already, as I pay attention to just such things. But, well, I can be gullible from time to time.

The faking of historical film footage, studio & family photographs, & other archival bits, is done most convincingly. We also follow some of the life choices of the documentarian as she tries to track down more about the mysterious Fae. It's played totally straightfaced, not as a joke, but the satire is undisguisable.

Only now & then is it howlingly funny, as when crank feminist Camille Paglia is interviewed about this forgotten actress & rants on & on about the watermelon as a symbol of women's fecundity. For once there's no question but that Camille does indeed know she's a comic, not a philosopher!

Cheryl begins to relate very strongly to her research subject, as researchers do tend to do when getting closer & closer to some figure of recent or distant history. Their lives seem often to parallel for such reasons as Cheryl similarly dating a white woman, & some of the truest funny stuff is about lusting across a racial divide.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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