If you’re like me, the #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoStraight controversies surrounding this year’s Academy Awards—Hollywood’s self-congratulatory pat on the back for making zero progress toward creating a more inclusive industry and more opportunities for women, particularly women of color—left a rancid taste in your mouth.
But fear not, feminist cinephiles! This month marks the 20th anniversary of The Watermelon Woman, the first (ever!) feature-length narrative about a lesbian woman of color, directed by the first openly gay African American woman to make a feature film, Cheryl Dunye. Did I mention Dunye also wrote, edited and starred in the picture, the first feature-length film of her career? And she entrusted the role of cinematographer to Michelle Crenshaw, an opportunity rarely (if ever) offered to a woman, much less to a queer woman of color.
While a badass crew of creative women behind the scenes is reason enough to check out the film, it’s Watermelon Woman‘s spot-on commentary on black queer women’s representation in Hollywood (or lack their of) that really satisfies. In the film, Dunye plays a fictional version of herself: an aspiring filmmaker whose next project aims to uncover the identity of an African American actor credited only as “Watermelon Woman” in a black and white Civil War-era film. Researching classic films with camera in hand and interviewing both friends and scholars of the starlet, Cheryl learns that the thespian in question, Fae Richards, was not only an actor but also a talented singer, night club performer and lesbian, too; she was rumored to have had an illicit love affair with one of her directors, a white woman. In a delicious twist of art imitating life, fictional Cheryl dips her finger into her own scandalous romance, engaging in a tasty tryst with Diana, a white customer at the video store where she works.
Dunye cooked up the movie’s premise when, after searching far and wide for a film project that resonated with her creatively and culturally, she realized, “No one was making anything about an African American lesbian.” A film within a film, Dunye shrewdly employs the mockumentary device to capture the unique frustrations of women of color, specifically lesbian women of color, in the entertainment industry; in the absence of opportunities to see and share their stories, they must create those opportunities for themselves.
With a closing title card that reads “Sometimes you have to create your own history,” Dunye’s queer indie classic is as relevant today as it was when it premiered in 1996 at The Berlin International Film Festival.
Alas, there’s no accounting for taste. Though critically acclaimed, The Watermelon Woman served up a heaping helping of controversy when, shortly after the film’s release, a reviewer described a love scene between Cheryl and Diana as “the hottest dyke sex scene on celluloid,” spurring Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra to demand the federal government cut the $31, 500 grant that funded a portion of the film from the National Endowment of the Arts’ budget in the name of “decency.” Barf.
Did I whet your appetite? A newly restored version of The Watermelon Woman is available for festival and community screenings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and host your own viewing party today!