in Criterion Month

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Since it’s a word my browser’s spell checker didn’t recognize, I guess I have to start talking about The Watermelon Woman by explaining what intersectionality is. Since this is a movie review, let’s use the film industry as an example. The Nineties were considered a golden era for indie American cinema. Advances in technology meant that the barrier to entry was the lowest it had ever been, and a deluge of creative filmmakers took that chance to change the game. That wave meant there was more space for women, people of color, and queer people to make movies. But each of those groups only got a sliver of that space, and the more of the groups you belonged to, the less opportunity you had. Of the people who broke through, most of the women were white and straight, most of the people of color were straight men, and most of the queer people were white men. That compounding discrimination is called intersectionality. And it’s such a problem that in 1996, Cheryl Dunye was the first African American lesbian to direct a feature film.

Intersectionality is both the subject of The Watermelon Woman and the impetus for its creation. Writer-director-star Cheryl Dunye had been researching Black film history for a class when she learned that early Black actresses were often left out of the credits. As she researched the topic, it’s easy to imagine the real-life Cheryl ran into the same problems that her fictional counterpart does: her library’s film section doesn’t have anything on Black actors, the Black film historian she meets doesn’t know anything about women, the lesbian archive she finds is too understaffed and underfunded to be helpful, the critic she meets is laughably up her own ass. In the end, the real Dunye decided to make her own history. And that is embodied by “The Watermelon Woman.”

Within the fiction of the movie, The Watermelon Woman (Lisa Marie Bronson) was an actor in a film called “Plantation Memories” that caught the eye of video store employee and aspiring filmmaker Cheryl. As she searches for clues on who this person was, Cheryl finds out she has even more in common with her than she could have predicted. But Cheryl’s project is just one of this movie’s stories. The Watermelon Woman was deliberately made as a document of contemporary queer life in Philadelphia, and makes time for Cheryl to meet plenty of people with different experiences than her own. So we see things like when Cheryl and her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) get a gig filming a wedding or when they have a funny double date at a karaoke bar. As “important” as The Watermelon Woman might seem, I must stress that that most of the time this is actually a very Nineties romantic comedy.

That romance is represented by Diana (Guinevere Turner), a white woman, who meets Cheryl at the video store. The two end up getting together, which brings me to another part of The Watermelon Woman‘s legacy. You see, this movie was made on a $300,000 budget, of which $31,500 came from a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. World-renowned asshole Pete Hoekstra, then a congressman from Michigan, attacked the NEA for using taxpayer money to fund a “patently offensive” movie. Of course Dunye wasn’t invited to defend her film, and Hoekstra threw a big enough fit that the NEA was forced to restructure the way it gives grants. This is baffling and upsetting to me. First of all, the sex scene between Cheryl and Diana is hardly “pornographic,” as he called it, so it’s obvious that what Hoekstra found offensive was that it was interracial lesbians (which I’m sure is also his bookmarked search on Pornhub). Classic Nineties homophobia. But more importantly, Cheryl Dunye made groundbreaking art about preserving an underrepresented part of American culture and this piece of shit used it as an excuse to make it harder for future artists to find funding. Fuck that.

When I had the idea to use Criterion’s Black Lives collection for my entire marathon this year, I was equal parts excited and uncomfortable. Specifically, I was and have been wrestling with the idea that this could be a mistake, another embarrassing example of performative wokeness. I feel guilty every day because I could and should be spending my time and energy protesting. Even in Seattle, shit is going down. Instead I stay at home, terrified of the pandemic and doing little more than donating tiny amounts of money and writing these brief posts on this barely-read blog. There’s no way that this marathon makes up for all the privilege I have.

Which, when I actually write my feelings down… duh. Of course this isn’t enough, and of course this is uncomfortable. We’ve done a bunch of these and even if you count the eight Shocktober Criterion Month posts I did, in those first 38 posts I had never written about a film by a Black director. I didn’t write about a movie directed by a woman until my 36th Criterion Month post, at nearly the end of last year. Again and again this July, I’ve encountered talented filmmakers who struggled mightily to find funding and release their movies, often to still end up forgotten because the system is rigged against them. I’m complicit in that system, and will continue to benefit from disproportionate representation for the foreseeable future. If that didn’t make me queasy, I’d be some sort of slimeball like Peter Hoekstra.

But real life isn’t a movie, white people like me are not going to get some amazing redemptive moment that makes everything OK. I think I can only try to be better and lean into the discomfort when it comes. Change isn’t easy. Maybe I am letting myself off the hook, but that’s the best I’ve got right now. I didn’t do enough, but I’m glad I tried to do something instead of merely internalizing my feelings of outrage. I did the smallest thing I could possibly do: put myself out there. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about American heritage and cinematic history, despite having only sampled a small slice of what is out there. I hope my positive impressions of these 10 movies encourages you to check out any of them that sound interesting. I hope I remember the filmmakers who are still working and find ways to support their future endeavors. Like Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye has mostly worked in TV since her big feature debut, but also has a new movie coming out from Lionsgate. That’s a weirdly specific similarity, good for you Lionsgate… And now I’m congratulating corporations. I’m so white.