1. Dunye’s early videos on the theme of identity politics: Janine (1990), The Potluck and the Passion (1993), Greetings from Africa (1994), and She Don’t Fade (1991). For some informative essays on late twentieth-century black gay and lesbian film and video, see B. Ruby Rich, “When Difference Is (More Than) Skin Deep,” in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, eds. Martha Gever, Pratiba Parmar, and John Greyson (New York: Routledge, 1993), 318-39; Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), esp. 131-170; and, David Van Leer, “Visible Silence: Spectatorship in Black Gay and Lesbian Film,” in Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, ed. Valerie Smith (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 157-177. [return to text]
2. Arnold Rampersad’s two-volume biography is widely acknowledged to be the most authoritative account of Hughes’s life and artistic production. See Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
At the 2002 Yale Symposium Commemorating the 100th Birthday of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad presented a paper titled “Was Langston Hughes Gay?” For an overview of the public debate on Hughes’s homosexuality and a superb queer reading of homoeroticism in his writings, see Juda Bennett, “Multiple Passings and the Double Death of Langston Hughes,” Biography 23,4(Fall 2000): 670-689.
4. For a description of the basic characteristics of the mammy stereotype in U.S. film, see Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Film (New York: Continuum, 1989), esp. 7. Although Bogel correctly observes that the mammy figure is often portrayed as “cantankerous” and “headstrong,” these traits seem to be subordinated to the mammy’s primary characteristic of subservience to white desires in her function as servant and foil for heroic white characters.
5. For discussions on the authenticating strategy of providing documentary evidence in the early slave narratives, see Barbara Foley, “History, Fiction, and the Ground Between: The Uses of the Documentary Mode in Black Literature,” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association (May 1980): 389-403; Robert B. Stepto, “I Rose and Found My Voice: Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Four Slave Narratives” in The Slave Narrative, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), esp. 227; and, James Olney, “’I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Ibid., esp. 151.
6. For an overview of the history of black-cast films or so-called “race movies,” see Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), Chs. 7 & 12.
7. The use of black-and-white rather than color film stock stages the authenticity of the 30s- and 40s-era film footage of South Street by giving the impression that the fabricated film footage is an artifact of a time before technology enabled recording in color. Gillo Pontecorvo is generally given credit for pioneering such fabricated archival film footage in his Battle of Algiers (1966). See Warren, ed., Beyond Documents: Essays on Nonfiction Film (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), esp. 71. [return to text]
8. Dating as far back as the early twentieth century, black women have been at the forefront of the independent cinema movement. See Valerie Smith, “Reconstituting the Image: The Emergent Black Woman Director,” Callaloo: Journal of Afro-American and African Arts and Letters 11,4 (Fall 1988): 710-19; Mbye B. Cham and Claire Andrade-Watkins, eds., Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988); Leslie Gossage, “Black Women Independent Filmmakers: Changing Images of Black Women,” Iris: A Journal about Women 17(Spring-Summer 1987): 4-11; and, Pearl Bowser and Valerie Harris, eds., Independent Black American Cinema (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1981). For an informative discussion on black women filmmakers of the Los Angeles School, see Ntongela Masilela, “Women Directors of the Los Angeles School,” in Black Women Film & Video, ed. Jacqueline Bobo (New York: Routledge, 1998), 21-41.
9. This and other scenes from Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman resemble scenes from Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines’s Demon Lover Diary (1980), in which the filmmakers record audiovisual diaries for the purpose of self-reflection.
10. Of course, the mammy figure and other stereotypical black characters in Hollywood film have been the perennial butt of jokes, the unwitting dupe of ruse, and the static object of general ridicule. As far back as the early black-cast films of the 30s, black filmmakers have countered such anti-black racist stereotyping by presenting realistic images of African Americans in film. Under pressure from black activist groups, black actors, black filmmakers, and black filmgoers, the Hollywood film industry has gradually incorporated a more diverse range of black characters into mainstream films. Yet, the U.S. mass media has hardly made a full disavowal of anti-black racist stereotyping. Defended on the grounds that they present critical parodies of black stereotypes, recent appropriations of the 70s blaxploitation film genre by Quentin Tarantino and other contemporary filmmakers have been box office successes, garnering tens of millions of dollars for the Hollywood film industry. Nonetheless, controversy surrounds these films, as detractors insist that they only perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
The parody of anti-black racist stereotyping in film and other visual arts has raised complex questions: Who may engage in such parody? Can such parody be deployed without conferring legitimacy on anti-black racist stereotypes? Who may laugh at such parodies and who may not? In contemporary U.S. culture, what does it mean to laugh at such parodies?
For recent monographs on blaxploitation film, see, A. Sivanandan, Blaxploitation and the Misrepresentation of Liberation (London: Institute for Race Relations,1998); Mikel J. Koven, Blaxploitation Films (London: Pocket Essentials, 2001); and, Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006).
11. Cheryl’s performance brings to mind critical appropriations of the mammy figure on the part of black women artists such as Betye Saar and Faith Ringold. Of course, the most infamous and recognizable mammy figure is Aunt Jemima, modeled on Nancy Green, who was born a slave in 1834 and obtained notoriety for performing sentimental songs and tales about the Old South and for cooking pancakes. Green sold the right to the use of her likeness, wearing a handkerchief on her head and beaming a broad “watermelon” smile, as the trademark image for the packaging and the mass marketing of pancake mix. The rest is not only history but the perpetuation of a spurious myth about black femininity in U.S. mass culture. See M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1998).
Recent critical appropriation of racist stereotypes in the works of Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles has provoked discussion on the deployment of parody in contemporary African American visual art. Interlocutors Betye Saar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael D. Harris, and Lowery Stokes Sims discuss this controversial topic in International Review of African American Art, 14,3 (Summer, 1997).
12. This scene aptly follows the segment depicting Cheryl’s research trip to the public library, in which she unsuccessfully attempts to gather authenticating evidence on the life of “The Watermelon Woman” from authoritative sources of historical knowledge.
13. Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight, Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 1-5. For another recent discussion on mock-documentary, see Alexander Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, eds., F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). [return to text]
14. The film’s final credits include the following acknowledgement of the actors: Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), Martha Page (Alexandra Juhasz), Tamara (Valerie Walker), Diana (Guinevere Turner), June Walker (Cheryl Clarke), and Lee Edwards (Brian Freeman).
15. According to the film’s credits, Michelle Crenshaw supervised the fabrication of the archival film footage and Zoë Leonard oversaw the fabrication of the period stills. For a discussion of Leonard’s fabricated archival photographs, see Zoë Leonard, The Fae Richards Photo Archive (San Francisco: Artspace Books, 1996).
16. See Phyllis J. Jackson and Darrell Moore, “Fictional Seductions,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 4,3(November, 1998): 500 & 507. Peter Jackson’s mock-documentary titled Forgotten Silver  was similarly misperceived by its audience. For an insightful discussion on that film and the audience response to it, see Roscoe and Hight, Faking It, 144-46.
17. For a full discussion of these modes of documentary representation, see Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991), esp. 32-75.