You may spot a bit of a theme going down on Jill’s blog and mine at the moment – and it’s something we’re both interested in continuing until the end of the year at least.
Black Lives Matter is very much on the forefront of most people’s agendas at the moment – rightly fucking so – so we want to explore more films and documentaries about Black experiences, by Black writers and directors, and by Black women wherever possible.
We’re aiming to do this until January which means a lot of interesting and no doubt difficult content is coming our/your way for the next six months. I’m looking forward to learning way more than I know now (which isn’t much, let’s be real here).
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
A young black lesbian filmmaker probes into the life of The Watermelon Woman, a 1930s black actress who played ‘mammy’ archetypes.
Cheryl (Dunye) is a Black lesbian filmmaker who works in a video store with her BFF, Tamara (dream job tbh) and makes wedding videos and the like on the side.
She aspires to make ‘proper’ films and eventually make it in the film industry but doesn’t have a firm plan of what she wants to say, though she knows it’ll be about Black women because their stories are seldom told.
She’s fixated on a nugget of an idea though and is in love with some of the old movies of the 30s and 40s, in particular one called Plantation Memories. This movie stars a beautiful actress known only as The Watermelon Woman in the role of housemaid Ethel.
In a monologue, in which she speaks directly to camera, Cheryl reminisces about finding out that most Black actresses in these sorts of roles (which were usually the only roles for Black actors), were hardly ever named in the credits of the films they starred in, which understandably shocked her.
While this isn’t surprising really, it is sickening to consider that Black women of the era were essentially giving their art for next to nothing and not being credited for it (something that still happens to this day).
So Cheryl sets out to make a documentary about The Watermelon Woman (Lisa Marie Bronson) and at the same time find out more about her life. And boy is she psyched to find out that she’s a fellow sapphic sister!
Throughout Cheryl’s research and project, she also has her own personal stuff to deal with. Tamara (Walker) is helping her but things aren’t quite gelling between the best friends. Cheryl is unimpressed by T’s attempts to fix her up with her girlfriend’s mate, the glorious Yvette (Kat Robertson) – and even less so when she meets white girl Diana (Turner) in the shop and they start hooking up.
Tamara doesn’t warm to liberal Diana and accuses her of fetishising Black people while Cheryl is charged with ‘wanting to be white’. Cheryl senses the divide growing between them but continues to see Diana because she likes her.
Meanwhile, Cheryl learns that The Watermelon Woman’s real name was Fae Richards and that she was in a relationship with female director Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz), who made Plantation Memories and a number of movies also starring her lover.
As she uncovers more about Fae’s life through anecdotes from people who knew and knew of her – including her mother’s friend Shirley (a stone butch), an amazing cinephile called Lee Edwards and Martha Page’s own sister – who strenuously denies there was ever any relationship between Martha and Fae – Cheryl also explores 1920s and 30s Black culture in Philadelphia and the all too familiar ‘mammy’ archetype.
She eventually gets in touch with June Walker (Cheryl Clarke) who was in a relationship with Fae for 20 years up until her death. Unfortunately, June takes a turn and ends up in hospital before they can meet in person – but she leaves Cheryl a note which spurs her on to complete the film.
This is joyful and right up my street. I got strong Spike Lee vibes and honestly, it made me giggle a lot. Tamara is a great character and both her and Cheryl have a very real feeling relationship. I also enjoy the exploration of Cheryl’s interracial relationship with hippy chick Diana.
I haven’t revealed what June says in her letter because it’s really quite touching. Her enduring love for the fascinating titular character, along with some of the anecdotes Cheryl collects about her, really got me and served as a balm for the indignities she suffered (soothed but not cured, obviously).
Cheryl is magnetic and funny – her exchange with the C.L.I.T (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology) librarian was a real highlight and made me howl. I really appreciate her goal to pad out the story of a compelling actress robbed of the career she deserved. While Fae did go on to star in many films, she was never able to reach the same heights as the white actors in Hollywood because, well we all know why.
There’s a segment in which cultural critic and feminist Camille Paglia goes in on the mammy role which I found interesting but also I’m not sure I see it in the same way. It’s definitely something I need to think some more about.
I really loved this experience but kept getting confused about what was real and what was fiction. For the record this is a documentary about a fictional character who I guess represents all the overlooked and uncredited Black actors of this period.