Center of Philadelphia’s historic black community, early twentieth-century South Street was a bustling business district by day and a lively entertainment strip by night.
Black residents enjoyed strolls along early twentieth-century South Street.
Black owned businesses, such as barber shops, restaurants, and jazz clubs, lined early twentieth-century South Street.
Owned by black entrepreneur John T. Gibson and located at the intersection of 12th and South Street, the Standard Theatre featured noted black American entertainers of the 1920s including Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. The theatre attracted a multi-racial audience until it closed in 1931.
South Street underwent a period of decline for most of the late twentieth century. Where thriving businesses once stood, abandoned and dilapidated buildings blighted the neighborhood’s landscape.
Cheryl and Tamara at a shooting location, whereTamara grudgingly agrees to help Cheryl with her film project.
Visiting the library, Cheryl is disappointed to find that books on film history offer no clues to “The Watermelon Woman’s” real life story.
Shirley Hamilton, a native informant in Cheryl’s documentary film, speaks about the lesbian clubs of a by-gone era.
Cheryl's parody runs the gamut from identification to distortion to performance to critique to pathos.
But Cheryl finds no reflection of herself in Hollywood’s mammy figure and other black stereotypes, which efface the identity of black people.
The sexual attraction between Cheryl and Diana introduces the topic of interracial desire in the contemporary lesbian community.
Cheryl’s desire for Diana causes Tamara to question Cheryl’s identification with racial blackness.
Skin and desire.
Cheryl has heard enough of about Diana’s other black lovers and prepares to leave.
Fae and her white female lover, Martha.
Fae played the leading lady in blackcast films.
In her video diary, Cheryl reflects on meaning Fae’s life story holds for her own sense of self.
Armed with this evidence, Cheryl produces a film segment that poignantly juxtaposes black-and-white archival footage of the bustling, vital activity along South Street during the 30s and 40s to footage of late twentieth-century South Street, at that time a blighted inner-city neighborhood of abandoned and decaying buildings with graffiti scrawled over them. [open notes in new window] Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman depicts this segment of Cheryl’s documentary film as a rough cut. Conspicuously, some frames include images of Tamara. Of course, the professional protocols of objective documentary filmmaking require Cheryl to expunge images of her friend, who is also the only member of her part-time film crew, from the finished version of her film. Nonetheless, by incorporating images of late twentieth-century South Street into her work, Cheryl acknowledges that Tamara's filmmaking philosophy has left a meaningful impression. Allowing Cheryl and Tamara to find common ground in a shared documentary impulse to record the bleak urban reality of their hometown on film, Dunye’s mock-documentary calls attention to the interactive, collaborative facet of documentary filmmaking and to the intersubjective bond of collective identity that working in that mode of documentary representation reinforces.
Cheryl goes to the public library in search of authoritative film history books. But she finds that film histories make no mention of “The Watermelon Woman,” and except for Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, they also neglect other black actresses. Cheryl also notices that few published studies on the history of cinema index black actresses by their names. She ruefully explains her predicament: “It’s not like I can go and ask for information about the Watermelon Woman.” At the time of her visit to the public library, Cheryl had not yet discovered “The Watermelon Woman’s” real name. In any case, that information would have been of little use to Cheryl at the public library. She explains, “They only have references to Black Women in Film.” Subsumed under a generic heading, black actresses of the past lack the indexical specificity in authoritative sources of historical knowledge that would make it possible for Cheryl to conduct conventional research on an individual actress’s life story. Just as “The Watermelon Woman” designates a stereotype, not a proper name, “Black Women in Film” is a generic topic, not an index to an individual’s biography. It is as if the black actress of the 30s and 40s had no identity as a unique human being. At best, she had value as part of a collective history and, at worst, as a vehicle for propagating derogatory myths about black femininity. Hence, Cheryl commits to a practice of identity politics that involves redressing such epistemic violence against black female subjectivity by recovering the real life story of “The Watermelon Woman.”
Cheryl turns to alternative sources of historical knowledge. Hoping to recover subjugated knowledge from the memories of a native informant, she conducts an oral history interview with Shirley Hamilton, a black lesbian factory worker who spent her early adult years in 30s and 40s Philadelphia and continues to reside there. In the interview at Shirley’s South Philly home, Cheryl wastes no time. Without delay, she asks her native informant whether she ever knew a black actress going by the name “The Watermelon Woman.” Shirley responds:
Shirley recalls that, in order to promote her film career, Fae had a sexual relationship with a white woman director named Martha Page, who, Shirley remembers, was “one mean and ugly woman.” While reminiscing about the lesbian clubs of the WWII era, Fae’s seductive voice, and the competition to capture Fae’s attention, which became a perennial contest among the clubs’ butch patrons, Shirley displays photographs of Philly’s black lesbian community in the 40s. These photos include an image of Fae singing on stage. Cheryl, her native informant, and the camera linger on this snapshot. Clearly still infatuated with Fae’s beauty, Shirley remarks, “She was a looker, wasn’t she?” Cheryl responds, “Yea, she was a looker all right.”
In this way, two black women from different generations share the lesbian gaze, not for each other but for the ageless photographic image of Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards. Once again, Cheryl transgresses the professional protocols of objective documentary filmmaking practice, this time by inserting her own lesbian desire into the interview session. Yet, the interview is a success, yielding valuable factual information about her lost ancestor’s life: Cheryl learns that “The Watermelon Woman” was not only an actress but also a jazz singer and a pioneering black independent filmmaker, that her real name is Fae Richards, and that she is a lesbian.
As the young black lesbian filmmaker uncovers the real life story of Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, Fae’s biography increasingly resembles Cheryl’s own life story:
Cheryl’s mounting identification with the object of her film causes her to transgress the protocols of classical documentary filmmaking by placing her person, her intimate relationships, and her desires before the camera in a humorous yet subversive manner. In addition to appropriating the unmasked interview style of the interactive mode of documentary representation, Dunye’s mock-documentary deploys the device of the filmmaker’s video diary associated with the reflexive and the performative modes of documentary representation. Throughout the film, Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, appears in front of the camera in order to report on the progress of her documentary film project. Telling about her filmmaking process is a focal action that seems to give Cheryl a sense of identity, to unify her life and propel it forward. In this respect, the activity of making a film about a heroic role model from the past becomes a journey of self-discovery for Cheryl.
In this and other scenes from her video diary, Cheryl alternately talks to herself, addresses the film spectator, and even speaks to Fae, who is becoming ever more real to Cheryl as she recovers more and more of the black actress-jazz singer’s life story.
Two video diary scenes suggest that Cheryl begins to over-identify with the object of her documentary film project to the point of nearly losing her own identity or, at least, her self-control. In the first of these scenes, Cheryl appears before the camera wearing a handkerchief mammy-style and lip-syncing the mammy’s lines from Plantation Memories. Cheryl’s performance of the mammy role oscillates between hysteria and parody, between obsessive identification with the mammy figure — a racist myth, a sexist stereotype, a Hollywood formula, not a real person — and satirical imitation of that icon of U.S. popular culture. The spell of over-identification is broken when the scene ends with Cheryl suddenly ripping the handkerchief from her head and casually blowing mucus from her nose into it. In this scene, Cheryl delivers a parody of a parody, a performance of a performance. Here, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman comments on the performative nature of identity, and plays with the mirror of distortion that identifying with a role model from a racist and sexist past presents to a young black lesbian in the late twentieth century.
In another scene, Cheryl holds photographs of black actresses from the 30s and 40s close to the camera, thus obscuring her own face. Here, the predicament is not one of distortion but of effacement, for the scene registers the erasure of identity that blots out the black woman’s unique biography and renders her anonymous. Yet, by recording her audiovisual diary, Cheryl documents her own life story, ensuring that it, along with her name, her voice, and her image, will not be lost in time. Hence, in Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, the black woman character is no longer merely the spectacle, located in front of the camera and confined to film’s interior storyline, but also a filmmaker with camera and endowed with discursive mastery.
Soon after Cheryl discovers ”the Watermelon Woman’s” real name and that the black actress-jazz singer had a sexual relationship with a white woman, Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, reports that her own life is “finally coming together: Hollywood, the Watermelon Woman, Fae Richards — and Diana?” At this point, Dunye’s mock-documentary communicates its thematic concern with identity politics by exploring the volatile issue of interracial sexual desire in the contemporary lesbian community. Cheryl's desire for Diana, a white lesbian, raises questions about the authenticity of her blackness and threatens to unravel the emerging coherence of this young black lesbian’s life.
A seemingly irresolvable conflict between Cheryl and Tamara arises when Cheryl begins dating Diana. Whereas Tamara accepts, albeit grudgingly, Cheryl’s desire to document the story of a black actress who played a mammy, she stubbornly refuses to accept Cheryl’s desire for Diana. Tamara sees Cheryl’s alleged sexual preference for white women as a symptom of self-hatred and asserts that both Cheryl and Diana suffer from an identity crisis:
Tamara’s allegations expose the presence of intolerance for black-white interracial sexual desire in the black lesbian community. Although Tamara does not speak for the entire black lesbian community, she, as a well-established member of that “family,” does not hesitate to exert peer pressure on Cheryl — her contemporary, friend, and black lesbian “sister.” In response, Cheryl asserts her autonomy by posing the rhetorical question: “Who’s to say that dating somebody white doesn’t make me black?”
Yet, Cheryl does begin to suspect that Diana desires her because she, Cheryl, is black. If that were so, dating Diana exposes Cheryl to the peril of being the fetishized black object of white racist desire, regardless of Cheryl’s own self-assertive and affirmative identification with racial blackness. Whether grounded in reality or fantasy, Cheryl’s reservations about Diana’s intentions haunt their relationship. During a seemingly casual evening at Diana’s downtown loft, Cheryl and Diana engage in the post-orgasm ritual of pillow talk. In that conversation, Diana reveals that she has had several black lovers. Cheryl seems to take this news as confirmation of her suspicion, removes herself from Diana’s bed, hastily dresses, and announces that she must get back to work on her documentary film project. When Diana protests that they should spend the night together in bed, Cheryl restates her determination to return to her work.
The popular slogan of feminist identity politics, “the personal is political,” informs this bedroom scene. The danger that Cheryl’s intimate relationship with Diana might take on the principal power dynamic of the black mammy-white mistress relationship – namely, the black woman having no identity apart from the role of satisfying the whims of a white woman – is the scene’s subtext.
This is the last scene in which Cheryl and Diana appear together. While it begins with two lesbian lovers, one black and the other white, enjoying the afterglow of sensual pleasure, it ends on an uneasy note of unspoken and unresolved tension. Cheryl discovers that in her intimate relationship with her white female lover she is unable to address frontally the complicated and vexed issue of interracial sexual desire, a matter that she directly investigates in her professional life as a documentary filmmaker.
Cheryl escapes Diana’s bed, but she cannot elude the social controversy over interracial sexual desire. Returning to work on her documentary, Cheryl must confront that issue, for Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards had a sexual liaison with a white woman and that facet of Fae’s life becomes the cause of friction between Cheryl and her most important native informant, June Walker — an elderly black lesbian and Fae’s lover for over 20 years. In a telephone conversation with June, Cheryl learns that Fae is dead. Cheryl goes to June’s house to meet her. There a neighbor informs her that June has taken ill and has been hospitalized, and hands Cheryl a packet containing a note and documentation of the life June and Fae shared. Cheryl’s image of Fae’s glamorous life as an actress, jazz vocalist, and pioneer black lesbian filmmaker fades from view as she learns that Fae lived most of her life as a member of Philadelphia’s black lesbian working-class community.
The following scene shows candid snapshots and home movies of Fae’s life with June, and also depicts Cheryl wandering the streets of Philadelphia while a voice-over reads June’s note. First we hear Cheryl’s voice, then a stretched out, modulated voice representing the isometric tension between June and Cheryl, and then June’s voice:
Pursuing her career goal, Cheryl, the zealous young black lesbian filmmaker, has stirred up unpleasant memories and unexpected conflict for her native informant. Here, Dunye’s mock-documentary raises important questions about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Does the documentarist have an ethical obligation to honor the native informant’s wish to protect the memory of her deceased lover? When the documentarist and the native informant are in conflict over how best to commemorate the deceased’s life, whose values prevail?
Seated in front of the camera, Cheryl confesses: