Looking for Langston also explores the theme of interracial desire and offers a poetic vision of male homoeroticism in the era of the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance who never publicly confirmed his homosexuality.

Cheryl, protagonist-narrator, records a video diary for the purpose reporting on the progress of her film project, and she also uses it for self-reflection.

In her video diary, Cheryl shows and tells.

Cheryl and Tamara earn extra cash video recording social events.

Fae Richards, known as “The Watermelon Woman” during her Hollywood acting career, played the mammy in sentimental Hollywood films about the plantation south. In 30s and 40s cinema, the mammy was a marginal and subservient character who functioned as a foil for the heroic white protagonists.

Pioneering African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) wrote and directed many films with all-black casts.

Prominent actor, athlete, and political activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) played the leading role in Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1924).

In Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Stan (Henry Sanders) works at a slaughterhouse and leads an ordinary black working-class lifestyle in 1970s Watts, Los Angeles.

Cheryl’s mom gets ready for her inteview.

She talks back to her impatient daughter-filmmaker and then discusses a photograph of “The Watermelon Woman” in terms of ...

... her nostalgic memories of the good ol’ days when she remembers seeing “The Watermelon Woman” at a jazz club.

Produced during the years when talking movies were still a novelty, blackcast films featured black actresses in dramatic leading roles.


Hoax of the lost ancestor
Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman

by Thelma Wills Foote

March 5, 2007 marks the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman. An ambitious debut feature film, The Watermelon Woman examines the vicissitudes of identity politics in the post-modern era. In this respect, it shares a key thematic concern with Dunye’s earlier short videos and other experimental films and videos of the late twentieth century.[1] [open notes in a new window]

Thematically, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman most resembles Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1988) in that it also explores the contemporary black homosexual’s relationship to the past. However, Dunye’s disarmingly witty and irreverent mock-documentary abstains from affecting the solemn tone that pervades Julien’s path-breaking short film. Taking the film spectator on a nostalgic excursion into the by-gone era of the Harlem Renaissance, Looking for Langston offers the possibility of recovering, if not the factual details of Langston Hughes’s intimate life, then the largely unacknowledged homoerotic world that he inhabited. In contrast, Dunye’s film questions the sentimental yearning to recover the past and confronts the possibility of irretrievable loss in an ingenious manner. Unlike Julien’s lost ancestor, whose professional life as a writer has been copiously documented in an acclaimed biography and whose homosexuality has been the object of public debate,[2] Dunye’s lost ancestor, Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, is a creation of the filmmaker’s imagination. Not only is Fae Richards a fiction, but also fabricated is the film’s entire plot.

The Watermelon Woman presents the invented story of Cheryl, a young black lesbian who, in the face of manifold social constraints, struggles to make and ultimately completes a documentary film about an obscure black lesbian actress from the 1930s and 40s. Through its parody of the documentary filmmaker’s narcissistic identification with a heroic role model from the past, Dunye’s mock-documentary not only calls attention to the subjective and fabricated nature of documentary film and other factual discourses, but also points out that the contemporary black lesbian’s relationship to the past is as much an imaginary as a real one. In Dunye’s hands, mock-documentary becomes a mode of fictional discourse that endorses creative acts of self-discovery and self-determination.

Dunye’s short videos enlist elements of mock-documentary in the exploration of identity politics in the contemporary lesbian community. An expansion of her earlier work, Dunye’s first feature film mobilizes the full range of mock-documentary’s rhetorical resources for the purpose of critiquing the restrictive norms of past as well as present, black as well as white, and gay as well as straight society. Commenting on her filmmaking agenda, Dunye states,

“I’m continually pushing those boundaries of cultural politics, identity politics, and personal politics.”[3]

By critically examining the interplay of race, gender, sexuality, class, and age within the context of the contemporary black lesbian subject’s relationship to the past, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman ventures into a territory that the mock-documentary genre has rarely explored. In this essay, I will call attention to the ways in which Dunye’s mock-documentary links that complex relationship to its interrogation of identity politics.

The narrator-protagonist’s endeavor to attain her career goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker, and thereby achieve selfhood, is the catalyst that propels her story forward. The narrator-protagonist introduces herself with the following statement: “Hi! I’m Cheryl and I’m a filmmaker.” Cheryl immediately qualifies her self-description by confessing that she is actually an aspiring filmmaker who works as a clerk in a video rental store. With Tamara, her co-worker and buddy, she occasionally takes freelance jobs video recording weddings and other social events in the hope of earning enough cash to finance her film. Besides the lack of secure financing, another bothersome and equally fundamental obstacle stands in the way of her aspiration to become a filmmaker. She explains:

“The problem is: I don’t know what I want to make a film on.”

Cheryl is not completely clueless, however:

“I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told.”

Here, the documentary impulse, the desire to recover and to tell the stories of marginalized people, especially those who share her gender and racial identity, motivates Cheryl’s pursuit of a career in documentary filmmaking. In this way, Dunye’s film introduces its thematic concern with identity politics.

Dunye’s film further communicates its theme of identity politics by linking it to the narrator-protagonist’s search for origins. Seeking inspirational role models from the past, Cheryl studies film history — in particular, Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. At that time, Hollywood films confined black women to playing the mammy figure and other marginal characters, hardly inspiring examples for an aspiring young black lesbian filmmaker.[4] While watching Plantation Memories, a sentimental film set in the antebellum plantation South, Cheryl becomes infatuated with a beautiful black actress who portrays the mammy and, according to the credits, goes by the stage name “The Watermelon Woman.” Cheryl sardonically ponders the erasure of identity in this pseudonym:

“Is Watermelon Woman her first, her last, or is it her whole name?”

With this fictive name as a clue, Cheryl decides to make “The Watermelon Woman” the topic of her film. Addressing the film spectator, Cheryl states:

“I don’t know, but girlfriend has it going on! And, I think I’ve figured out what my project’s gonna be on. I’m gonna find out what her real name is, who she was and is, everything I can find out about her. Because something in her face, something in the way she looks and moves is serious, is interesting. And I’m just gonna tell you all about it.”

Identity politics adds another layer of complexity to Cheryl’s already complicated task of recovering the true life story of a largely unknown black actress from a by-gone era. As Cheryl solicits her family and friends to help with her documentary, she discovers that her buddy, Tamara, does not share her high regard for the value of the past and therefore does not draw inspiration from it. Tamara disapproves of the topic of Cheryl’s film on the grounds that it is unworthy of a serious filmmaker who, like herself, invests time, energy, and talent in capturing the rawness of contemporary urban reality on film. Whereas Cheryl is fascinated with the sentimental movies of Hollywood’s Golden Era, Tamara finds them worthless, perhaps less than worthless in that they are even worse than present-day Hollywood films. Tamara expresses her contempt: “I can barely stand the stuff Hollywood puts out now, let alone that nigga mammy shit from the 30s.” Tamara’s caustic words here parallel a disdain for Hollywood that has motivated black independent filmmaking from the early days of black-cast film production to contemporary black filmmakers of the Los Angeles School. By proposing to make a film about a black actress who based her career on playing the mythical mammy figure, Cheryl seems to be setting herself at odds with the independent black filmmaking tradition, whose identity politics centrally involves countering Hollywood’s preposterous and often disparaging racial stereotypes by presenting realistic images of ordinary black people.

While Cheryl’s documentary film project gets a vitriolic reception from Tamara, her buddy and peer, it receives a sympathetic response from her mother, who grew up in the 40s. Her mother even remembers seeing “The Watermelon Woman” in a film, and agrees to be interviewed on camera. But when seated in front of the camera, she denies ever seeing a film with “The Watermelon Woman” in it. Cheryl soon loses her professional composure. Although she remains off-screen, her voice can be heard as she chides her unreliable mother-informant for wasting her time. Facing the camera, the mother-informant appears to be insulted by her daughter-filmmaker’s remarks and, directly addressing her daughter by first name, replies:

“Now wait a minute, Cheryl; you talking to your mother; you don’t talk to me like that.”

Here, the traditional mother-daughter relationship – specifically, the deferential behavior a mother customarily demands from her daughter — has compromised the professional documentarist-informant relationship that Cheryl had attempted to establish in the interview. Cheryl therefore opts for the unmasked interview style of interactive documentary film. With the camera rolling, Cheryl hands her mother a photograph of “The Watermelon Woman,” and initiates a seemingly casual mother-daughter chat aimed at extracting valuable factual information. This interviewing style yields the desired result. Shortly, Cheryl’s mother reminisces about the jazz clubs of her youth and remembers seeing there a black female jazz singer fitting the description of “The Watermelon Woman.” When Cheryl inquires about the identity of the performers and the patrons who populated the jazz clubs, her mother responds casually:

“They were weirdoes. Yes, the weird people were there.”

Cheryl interjects with a subjective remark, which signals her identification with the jazz club denizens whom her mother has described as being “weird,” as somehow deviating from the norm:

“Kinda sounds like my type of people.”

Again casually, and without any hint that she understands the label “weird people” to carry pejorative connotations, Cheryl’s mother agrees and speculates that Cheryl would have enjoyed the company of the jazz club patrons:

“Yes, you would have loved it.”

This on-camera yet informal exchange between daughter-filmmaker and mother-informant yields factual information of value to Cheryl’s project, and also provides an occasion for Cheryl and her mother to broach the topic of Cheryl’s lesbian identity — albeit circumspectly, by means of the coded vernacular of her mother’s generation. Here, Dunye’s mock-documentary not only manages to parody the documentary filmmaking process, but also to comment on the familial and cross-generational dimensions of identity politics. The possibility that “The Watermelon Woman” was one of those “weird people,” or at least performed for them, reinforces Cheryl’s belief that she, a “weirdo” herself, and the object of her film have more in common than meets the eye: not just race, not just gender, but something more.

While Cheryl finds fascinating a certain intangible quality that “The Watermelon Woman” possesses, she remains mindful that the documentary filmmaking process involves gathering and presenting evidence for the purpose of validating a documentary film’s claim to being a factual discourse. The imperative to document is especially crucial to Cheryl’s film project, because its object is a black person. Dating back to Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), the authenticating strategy of offering documentary evidence to a skeptical and often hostile audience has been a crucial element in the telling of African American life stories.[5] Cognizant of that aspect of African American history and culture, Cheryl makes strenuous efforts to uncover the facts of “The Watermelon Woman’s” life.

To authenticate their stories about the brutality of slavery, slave narratives included visual evidence like this engraving of a master whipping his slave. This testimonial from a prominent white person verifies the authenticity of Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography.

To that end, Cheryl interviews experts in the fields of Film Studies and Cultural Studies, including Lee Edwards, an antiquarian collector of black-cast movie memorabilia.[6] Unlike the typical “talking head,” Edwards provides no authenticating testimonial evidence for Cheryl’s documentary film, as he never heard of “The Watermelon Woman.” But, he does give valuable contextual information and visual documentation of the world that the mysterious black actress likely inhabited. The main thoroughfare of that world was South Street, the historic center of Philadelphia’s black community.

To page 2

To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.