90 Movies in 90 Days: The Watermelon Woman (1996)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Watermelon Woman
Release Date: February 1996
Director: Cheryl Dunye
Production Company: First Run Features

The 1990s saw a burst of creativity in the world of  lesbian-themed independent movies.  I remember watching a lot of them (well, a lot more than you’d expect of a straight man) including Go Fish (1994), When Night Is Falling (1995), Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999), Better Than Chocolate (1999).  But somehow I missed what might be the best of them all.

Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye, who also wrote and directed the film) is a young Black and lesbian woman living in Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection) who works in a video store and as a videographer with her sharp-witted friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). Cheryl aspires to be a filmmaker and begins working on a documentary project about a Black actress who appeared in stereotypical roles in movies made in the 1920s and 1930s.  She’s identified only as “the Watermelon Woman”” and Cheryl pieces together evidence to learn of this woman’s past.

In a subplot, Cheryl begins dating Diana (Guinevere Turner, the star of Go Fish) and their interracial relationship puts a spotlight on racial tensions within the lesbian community.  This is really an intersectional movie as Cheryl has to deal with discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality.  It also is a tribute to the elder generations whose work made it a little easier for the descendants in these communities.  The movie is low-budget and Dunye does a lot of things that are probably things a filmmaker isn’t supposed to do.  But I’m thoroughly won over by Dunye’s enthusiasm and her very charming movie.

As a library and information science professional,  I must note that there’s a scene in this movie which features an example of bad librarianship.  Later in the movie, Cheryl visits an archive where there’s an atrociousness bad archivist.  I apologize on behalf of the LIS field for whatever experiences Dunye had that inspired these scenes!

Rating: ****