2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
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.[open endnotes in 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, 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.”
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. 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. 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 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. 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.
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. 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:
“You mean Fae, Fae Richards. Watermelon Woman? I don’t know where you got that mess from, probably, from when she was making those movies. But her name was Fae Richards. When she sang for us, she used her real name. And she used to sing for all us stone butches.”
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 an excerpt from her audiovisual diary, Cheryl gushes with enthusiasm about her recent discovery:
“Can you believe it? Fae is a Sapphic sister, a bulldagger, a lesbian. Oh, my God! I knew something was up when I saw Plantation Memories … I guess we have a thing or two in common, Miss Richards: the movies and women.”
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:
“I see that once again you’re going out with a white girl acting like she wants to be black, and you’re being a black girl acting like she wants to be white. What’s up with you, Cheryl? Don’t you like the color of your skin?”
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:
You sounded so excited over the phone that I had to write down some thoughts before they escaped me. All that talk about Fae and that white woman got me to remember some unpleasant things about the past. Things that upset me and things that had upset Fae when she was alive. I was so mad that you mentioned the name of Martha Page. Why did you even want to include a white woman in a movie on Fae’s life? Don’t you know she had nothing to do with how people should remember Fae? I think it troubled her soul for the world to see her in those mammy pictures. She did so much, Cheryl. That’s what you have to speak about. She paved the way for kids like you to run around making movies about the past and how we lived then. Please, Cheryl, make our history before we are all dead and gone. But, if you are really in the family, you better understand that our family will always only have each other. I know this is a lot to be writing down, but I wanted to remember it for now, so that the next time I see you we can make it right."
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:
“You know, I thought it was going to be easy. I thought I was going to be able to use the camera to document my search for Fae. But, instead, I’m left empty handed, except for this package from June.”
Cheryl’s search for the mysterious black actress-jazz singer ends in loss, in the knowledge of Fae’s death. Yet, Cheryl remains determined to complete her documentary film project, which, despite June’s protest, will include images documenting Fae’s relationship with a white female lover. With the camera rolling, Cheryl addresses June and explains the meaning Fae’s life holds for her own sense of self in relation to the past and the contemporary world:
“I [sic] she meant the world to you, but she also meant the world to me! And, those worlds are different. But what she means to me, a 25-year-old black woman means something else: it means hope; it means inspiration; it means possibility. It means history. And most important what I understand is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, ‘I am a black lesbian filmmaker,’ who’s just beginning, but I’m gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do.”
Knowing Fae’s life story motivates Cheryl to assert herself as a self-determining subject in a world where prohibitions against the desires of a young black lesbian are imposed not only by the dominant heterosexist and racist society but also by the black lesbian community, a “family” that, June insists, “will always only have each other.” During her adventure of looking for Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, Cheryl has found a heroine from the past with whom she establishes a deep bond of identification. The parallels between her own life story and Fae’s life story have encouraged Cheryl to pursue her career goal and other desires, even when her acts of self-determination mean defying societal demands that she conform to communally sanctioned norms. Having stated her intentions and explained them to June, Cheryl suddenly addresses the film spectator: “Anyway – what you’ve all been waiting for – the biography of Fae Richards.” The film spectator could not ask for a more satisfying ending.
Yet, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman refuses to satisfy the nostalgic desire for the true life story of a heroic role model from the past. Rather, her mock-documentary perpetrates a hoax on viewers who presuppose that the documentary form provides an unmediated and truthful record of past realities or that word and image always reference an external reality.
In Faking It, Roscoe and Hight observe that most mock-documentaries do not play a hoax on their audience, and therefore announce themselves as fake either in prerelease advertisements or at the beginning of screenings. In this way, they allow the film spectator in on the joke. In contrast, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman does not expose itself as fake until the presentation of its final credits.
At the conclusion of Dunye’s mock-documentary, Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, proudly screens the final product of her labor — a quite conventional, yet masterfully executed, short documentary film whose sepia-toned photographs and authoritative voice-over present Fae Richards’s biography. This satisfying resolution to the plot is not, however, sealed with the customary phrase “The End.” Rather, Dunye’s mock-documentary concludes by interspersing intercuts of its final credits throughout its climatic presentation of Cheryl’s documentary film. These credits acknowledge the actors who played fictive roles in Dunye’s mock-documentary as well as the visual artists who fabricated its realistic archival photographs and film footage.
Because many film spectators who attended a prerelease screening at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival continued to mistake her seductive mock-documentary for a nonfiction autobiographical narrative, even after they had viewed the film’s final credits, Dunye added a more explicit disclosure of the film’s fictional status: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.” But, if Dunye intended to foreclose completely the possibility of playing a joke on future audiences, she would have transferred this declaration and the credits to an opening sequence. Instead, she elected to acknowledge the audience’s active role in determining the film’s status as a hoax and in constructing its broader meaning by suspending explicit disclosure of its fictional status until the closing sequence.
That some viewers of Dunye’s mock-documentary become the butt of a joke while others apprehend its fictional nature, or at least remain skeptical of its authenticity, is as much the function of viewer expectation as filmmaker manipulation. Indeed, many filmgoers possess a high level of visual literacy and can actively appreciate a broad range of film genres, devices, and techniques. In this context, Dunye’s mock-documentary calls attention to the fluidity of film spectatorship by opening spaces for a variety of viewer-positions.
For film spectators who presuppose the veracity of documentary form, The Watermelon Woman becomes a prank at their expense. To be sure, Dunye’s mock-documentary opens the trapdoor for these viewers by skillfully appropriating three modes of representation associated with classic documentary film – the observational, expositional, and interactive modes. The codes and conventions of these modes or styles focus viewer attention on Cheryl's goal of presenting a faithful record of past reality, her gathering factual evidence for the purpose of supporting her documentary’s argument, and her relationship to the subject matter of her project. Nonetheless, what sends the film spectator falling through the trapdoor is the mistaken belief that a film’s deployment of classic documentary film’s codes and conventions guarantees its authenticity.
Because Dunye’s mock-documentary deploys the verité style of docudrama, viewer expectations about the factual basis of docudrama can also account for why some film spectators mistook its fictional narrative for a true story. In docudrama’s verité style, scenes in the observational mode of documentary representation are edited into episodes that enable narrative progression and establish narrative coherence without jeopardizing the illusion that the events captured on film actually happened in the unscripted flow of everyday life. This verité style thus can combine dramatic narrative structure with observational filming. By deploying the docudrama’s verité style, Dunye’s mock-documentary prompts the film spectator to view its progressively structured episodes as dramatic reenactments of actual events from the past. Occupying this viewer-position, the film spectator does not entertain the possibility that the events unfolding on screen are pure fiction and have no basis in past reality, except as completely fabricated pro-filmic events of a cleverly crafted mock-documentary.
Also at play here is viewer expectations about autobiographical storytelling or first-person recounting of the past events of one’s own life from the perspective of the present. In autobiographical storytelling, the protagonist is also the narrator, who retrospectively imposes a meaningful pattern on events that they could not have had at the time of their occurrence. Dunye’s film, like all autobiographical storytelling, admits that its coherence is the result of retrospection, that its emplotment of events is a discursive construction rather than an intrinsic property of reality. The film begins with a clearly demarcated retrospective scene which precedes the announcement of its title and the name of its maker:
“The Watermelon Woman a film by Cheryl Dunye.”
Although the film’s device of autobiographical storytelling alerts the viewer to its constructed nature, that device does not preclude the film spectator from mistaking Dunye’s mock-documentary for a dramatic reenactment of actual events from her past. The film leaves that possibility open until its concluding segment, when its final credits reveal that Dunye does not portray “herself”; rather, she plays the role of “Cheryl.”
Dunye’s mock-documentary plays a particularly devastating hoax on the film spectator who conflates Dunye, writer-director of The Watermelon Women, with Cheryl, the film’s narrator-protagonist, presupposes that voice and image are reliable indexes to external reality, and further presumes that a film about the life of a black lesbian is necessarily true when written and directed by a black lesbian filmmaker. In this way, Dunye’s mock-documentary critiques fetishizing film viewing practices and underscores the role viewer reception plays in determining the voices heard and the visions seen as authentic representations of social as well as individual identity.
In Dunye’s mock-documentary, use of autobiographical storytelling, appropriation of the codes and conventions of classic documentary film, and deployment of docudrama’s verité style provide no guarantee that a true story is being told. Indeed, The Watermelon Woman concludes by disclosing that Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, Cheryl, and the other characters have no real referent external to the film that has just unfolded on screen. They, along with the autobiographical narrative itself and the realistic archival photographs and film footage, are fabrications. Just as Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, has been bereft of the real in discovering that the object of her documentary film project is dead, the film spectator is bereft of the real in learning that the film s/he has been following is a fiction, a mock-documentary artfully constructed to interrogate the black lesbian subject’s relationship to the past in a context where a useable past must sometimes be invented.
Finally, the film’s hoax of the lost ancestor is a playful yet lucid statement on the irrevocable loss that defines the past. With the campiness of a sophisticated drag performance, Dunye’s faux documentary film mocks the sobriety of classic documentary films about the past and their nostalgia for the lost ancestor. Yet, Dunye’s mock-documentary does not deny the meaningfulness of the past, nor does it overlook the epistemic violence perpetrated by the erasure of the black homosexual from the historical record. Rather, the film affirms self-determining acts of making a living and open history from a past whose meaning is forged by the mediating capacity of the creative imagination to traverse historical knowledge and desire.
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.
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.
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).
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.